I’d had a rough week and wanted an easy, fun hike to forget about life for a while. With plans to climb Mt Adams on Monday via the south climb, I decided to spend Saturday and Sunday on the north side. I hiked up from the Killen Creek Trailhead, turned west on the PCT, then keep going west to the Yakima Reservation. On a map the route is odd because the trail seems to end for no apparent reason and so has been an object of my curiosity for some time. Ultimately, I didn’t get that far because I came to a beautiful, watered wash and decided to call it early. On the way back Sunday morning, I visited the rich meadow at High Camp on the north side of Mt Adams and had lunch looking out to Mt. St. Helens. There were a number of riding groups out which I haven’t seen in other places. An odd discovery on this trip was that wearing roomy running shorts and supportive underwear (the new, and apparently key ingredient here) with a tight shirt and a well fitted minimal pack makes you feel damn sexy. Perhaps form is function when you’re in an escapist mood.
I was invited to join Ella, Clare, and Morgan on a hike to the Canadian Border to see Ella off on her attempt to set the fastest known self-supported hike of the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was a remarkable trip best characterized as a party where the guests happened to walk 60 miles.
Driving up to Harts Pass with a full car had the feeling of a road trip. There was fast moving conversation, shallow and deep. Laughter. Dating advice. Everyone had brought enough snacks for everyone so of course, only the donuts got eaten. Pouring water from a wide mouth container to a small mouth container is difficult while traveling a high speeds.
From Harts Pass, we hiked in about seven miles along easy, beautiful single-track crossing lush hillsides. The Cascade peaks and ridges guarded the western horizon. August is prime hiking season and natural beauty was on full display.
We set camp around an hour before sundown in a flat spot where, on my Anacortes Crossing – Castle Pass misadventure a group of female hikers had left a disheveled, depleted me with a distinct feeling that I wasn’t welcome (admittedly I shuffled past holding an ice axe like an axe murder). Much better company this time. Ella and Clare bivvied and so were eaten by mosquitoes. By the time Morgan had zipped up her tent, so many mosquitoes had gotten inside that she had to shake out their corpses in the morning. I my dining apparel was a rainsuit and headnet.
Saturday was spent meandering along the well kept single-track of the PCT, taking inordinate numbers of pictures both of nature and of each other, and chatting about god knows what. The primary game became that we had to take a pictures of each subset of the four of us. The individual pictures were done as Hikertrash Vogue with Clare as photographer and Ella as Art Director.
One high point of the day (certainly by elevation) was where we ate lunch. The trail had been easy and so we had full energy to enjoy it. I discovered that the beer cans I’d packed out (provided by Morgan, many thanks) had kept the night’s cool under the the insulating effects of the quilt where they’d sequestered themselves.
By about 5pm we’d meandered our way as far as the monument marking the northern terminus of the PCT at the Canadian border. The spot is small and not really level enough for good camping. Ross was expected to meet us there from the Canadian side but were weren’t quite sure if he’d show up (bets were taken), much less where he’d camp. Just as we were deciding on a cut-off time to eat dinner without him, Ross appeared in the little clearing. After an exultant round of salutations, he lead us off to a wonderful campsite less than a kilometer across the border. As we settled in for dinner, he produced a small container of maple syrup for each of us. My contribution to the evening was a previously unused decade old tube of DEET based purchased by my mother when I hiked a section of the PCT in 2010.
The big day started just before 2am when Ella woke us up and we marched back to the border to see her off. After farewells, Ella took off uphill, over blowdowns, at a very brisk walk. We watched her headlamp twinkle like a fairy through the trees, zig-zagging upwards. It’s beam would illuminate the clear-cut along the border each time the switchback got close to it. Eventually the light disappeared and we went back to bed.
At 4:30am, my alarm went off. We had 30 miles back to the car and from there, five hours of driving. It didn’t have to be a hard day, but it had to be a long day. And it had to start now. Everyone was a good sport, taking food bars for breakfast on foot. I started to bid a potentially sleeping Ross adieu through his tent wall and he told me to stop because he’d get up and give us good by hugs.
We passed a south-bound thru-hiker starting their PCT hike. We ate breakfast where we’d lunched the day before and Morgan pointed out that I could mix Ross’s maple syrup into my oatmeal.
We tended to hike two together and one apart. We’d now been together long enough that it was nice to have some time alone. The day had a calmer feel, but there was an underlying tension thinking that Ella had walked this same dirt just hours before at a furious pace.
The closing miles were almost golden in the late afternoon sun. Clare racked up them up at speed, headphones in. Morgan and I took it easy. Her “big toe was eating her little toe” and had been for some time. We stopped to chat with a family inculcating a love of the outdoors into their late-elementary school age daughters and we did our best to talk up backpacking.
Clare was changed and ready to go by the time we got back to the car and ran down to us in blue dress reminiscent of The Sound of Music. There were still hours of daylight. We were footsore and happy to sit again. We took it all in and snacked. Ella had only been 60% done with her day’s miles when she’d passed the car. It was hard not to think of that.
I followed Ella’s tracker all week with what felt like the anxious tension of the closing minutes of a super bowl. It turns I was giving myself mild food poisoning with breakfast each morning which heightened the effect (maybe you can’t cook sausage in the microwave?). She kept on pace at about 50 miles and 10,000ft of gain per day over sections of trail which haven’t seen a trail crew this year. The day after reaching Stevens Pass, her tracker didn’t start, there was unexpected rain in the mountains, and I privately texted Ross a timeline for calling search and rescue. I needn’t have. A mutual friend who went out for a run that evening saw her descending from Kendall Katwalk. She made it to Snoqualmie Pass with 5 minutes before the gas station which held her resupply package closed.
Ella’s high spirits and playful nature hide a forceful will. Her FKT attempt ended at White Pass when she was unable to carry weight on one foot, having covered the last miles using hiking poles as crutches. From there she hitched home after having been passed by hikers who didn’t stop to help her. When I visited a few days later to drop off some belongings she’d left in my car, her leg was in a boot and, unable to walk, she would throw her keys out the window so people could let themselves up.
Some friends you keep because they show you a good time. Some friends you keep because they inspire and challenge you. Some friends you keep because they show you the terrifying, humbling price of truly finding your limits.
If you look at a map of the North Cascades mountains east of North Cascades National Park, it’s hard not to notice how many trails there are. Every drainage seems to have one. The connect every which way, forming all manner of possible routes for a weekend (or longer) excursion. I’ve explored the mapped trails between Ross Lake and the PCT extensively and was curious if similarly grand, though perhaps less manicured, experiences were available just a few ridge lines east. As other plans for the weekend had fallen through, I decided to eat the 5hr drive to Billy Goat Trailhead on Friday night.
Trip reports were sparse, though I found one mentioning that the Hidden Lakes trail was clear. Another recently reported a successful “Billy Goat Loop” (not the route described here) but didn’t describe trail conditions. I decided to go outbound towards Sheep Mountain up the Larch Creek Trail with the whimsical goal of playing tag with Canada by visiting Border Lake and, after a connection via Bunker Hill for which I couldn’t find a trip report, Monument 85. Hopefully, the relatively level Hidden Lakes Trail would carry my back to my car early enough to be home before work on Monday. This seemed like it would put most physically demanding parts of the route for which I also had the least information, as early in the trip as possible. If things got tough, it would be easy to turn around. What I worry most about on any new loop is not being able to close the loop and having to hike out over half the distance after having used over half the time. If you hike enough, eventually, you get to face your fears.
Friday, July 17 – Prologue
I pulled in to the Billy Goat Trailhead just after dusk, having beaten the estimated arrival time by half an hour. Doing 15 over on the highway when the speed limit is 60 doesn’t change your arrival time that much. Doing 15 over on a dirt road where 15 is the safe driving speed changes your arrival time a lot. I did slow down after a minor loss of traction.
My plan had been to camp near the trailhead so that I could pack up in the morning and be sure I wasn’t missing anything. At the end of the parking lot where there might have been campsites, there was a large tent, which looked like an MSR Hubba Hubba, and it was a shaking. I figured that if there was some hubba hubba going on in the Hubba Hubba, the tent occupants wouldn’t notice if I slipped by looking for a campsite further down the way. It turns out that the tent’s single occupant was just arranging a bulky air mattress while his friend cooked dinner. I introduced myself and wound up chatting with Noah and Milo. Noah had hiked down the Hidden Lakes Trail and knew it to be clear as far as the Tatoosh Trail intersection as of three weeks prior. He also knew that there wouldn’t be any snow which was a relief as I’d brought microspikes and an ice axe because of some large white patches on the low-res satellite imagery I’d studied in preparation for this trip. In the end, there weren’t any more flat spots so after hanging out for a while, I returned to my car for the night.
Saturday, July 18
As I became conscious, laid out in the back of my station wagon, it was clear that while there were stars in the sky, the edge of the world was just beginning to get lighter. If I were at home, this would mean turning over and going back to sleep. For some reason, it’s just not easy to do that on a big hiking day. Maybe it’s because dawn and dusk are the best hours for hiking. Maybe it’s because air mattresses just aren’t as comfortable as spring mattresses with foam toppers. Either way, I fumbled around until I’d changed into hiking clothes, packed up my bag, and filled out a self-service trailhead permit. About a mile after starting up the hill, I realized I’d left my hiking poles at the car. Along with being useful hiking aids, I use them to set up my tarp at night and so the smart thing might have been to go back and get them. I hate hiking unintended miles and so I just kept on.
Billy Goat Pass and Three Fools Pass passed quickly as the sun rose slowly behind the eastern ridge line. Much of the area was an old burn and so the lack of direct sun was a blessing. The trail was well maintained and the rich ground cover made up for the spindly trees.
After Three Fools Pass, the trail descends to a stream where the Diamond Jack trail continues up valley. The Larch Creek Trail crosses the stream and after a quick jog west, heads north at an incline so shallow it feels flat. The East Fork Pasayten Trail splits off after you leave the burn area and are contouring along a densely treed slope. Looking up both Diamond Jack and East Fork Pasayten Trails, it’s clear that there Larch Creek Trail gets singled out for special treatment from trail crews.
About half way between Three Fools Pass and Larch Pass, I slipped on a rock and fell crossing a small stream, but in such a way that I didn’t get wet. It was one of those falls where you don’t get much of a chance to save yourself and I was fortunate to be wearing a backpack. On of my fingers tore slightly under the nail which, combined with hands swollen from not having anything to do (usually not a problem with poles), meant my hands were the source of most of my displeasure. On hiking trips, it’s usually feet and shoulders that hurt. I guess variety is the spice of life.
Larch Pass did have larches. It was about 11:10am and I took my first sit-down break there since starting at about 4:40am. I was making little voice recordings thinking I might post them and save myself the time writing a trip report. Usually they captured shallow, momentary thoughts. Just as I would finish recording, I’d think of something else I wish I’d recorded. For all their lack of narrative and detail, they capture some interesting impressions. At Larch Pass, I said that, “the mountains are soft and the trail is soft.” Thus far, the trail had been well maintained and not tightly compressed or rocky. The mountains tended to be round, like hills, not jagged and rocky like the classic pictures of the North Cascades. One side would have fallen off and form the head of a drainage but the other looked like a walk-up. The mountains were also generally covered in grass or dirt, perhaps with some amount of stones mixed in, but not edifices of rock. While I don’t know the geologic processes made these mountains, perhaps this softer shape is because I was on the east of the range and whatever tectonic, volcanic, or glacial forces created the North Cascades aren’t as strong here.
The trail just after Larch Pass descended to a signed turn-off to McCall Basin. There was only the slightest hint of a trail at the turn-off, something that would soon become a theme of this trip. However, the meadow spreading down the basin and up to the turn-off for Corral Lake, was incredible. While I had intended to walk at whatever pace came to me and found that pace was much slower until Peeve Pass for all the pictures I took.
Sand Ridge, which starts near the Corral Lake turn-off appears to have a trail up it which wasn’t on my map. The Larch Creek Trail runs through the bowl under the ridge and up to a point near the end of the ridge before dropping to Peeve Pass. If I’d been in a more exploratory mindset, I might have tried to see if it went since it would have provided sweeping views of the area. My voice recordings for the area use “awe” and “a whole lot of pretty” to describe it. There was a trail coming down off the ridge at the other end, so I expect that it goes.
Peeve Pass is one of those odd passes which you descend to instead of climb to. It’s been burned recently and while plants are beginning to come back, the ash on the surface makes digging a cat hole easy. I turned left for a short jaunt on the Boundary Trail to the Park Pass Trail. It’s a good thing that there’s a sign for the Park Pass Trail because, the trail itself isn’t really visible.
I thought that this might stop my first attempt to tag Canada just short of the border. Fortunately, after walking a dozen or so yards, it’s pretty easy to see the cut of a trail in the earth where it crosses a streamlet. Usually, trails are distinct in color from the surrounding dirt but the fire made everything a uniform grey. While plants are a little less likely to grow on the trail, there were plenty of them coming up through the trail floor. When they grow up, they’ll obscure the subtle cut of the trail in the side of the hill and make it impossible to follow. While it’s easy enough to follow for now, I hope a trail crew gets there in the next few years before we lose the Park Pass Trail completely.
While the Park Pass Trail is still in good condition north of the fire scar, I was looking for the turn-off to the Border Lake Trail and if I hadn’t had a GPS, I wouldn’t have realized that I’d walked past it. There is a turn-off in the area but it leads a short distance to what must have been a camp full of discarded metal cans before the fire swept through. The terrain here is open and gentle and I could see what was probably a trail (and not just where water carved a trail-looking rut) and so walked to it. This turned out to be the Border Lake Trail which brought me to the border, then disappeared.
At this point, I was split about whether I really wanted to go to Border Lake. I’d tagged the border which was my primary objective and didn’t particularly care to climb a hill. Still, I’d gotten this far and wasn’t likely to do that again just to visit Border Lake so I took a bearing with the GPS and followed it to a low point on the ridge. A trail materialized just below the top. Just over the top, a lake materialized. The combination of gentle, open travel on one side and sudden drop-off on the other is quite dramatic, even if the features are slightly rounded.
I ate lunch on the ridge above Border Lake. I’d brought hard boiled eggs and avocado and didn’t want to let these perishable, crushable, delicious foodstuffs stay in my backpack any longer than necessary. Unfortunately, I’d also been snacking heavily and so was significantly stuffed on the trip back to the Border Trail.
I hadn’t committed to a specific itinerary, knowing that it might be hard to predict trail quality and conditions. Feeling lethargic after a big lunch, I didn’t want to be ambitious, and decided to work my way at a comfortable pace as far as I felt like going.
The Border Trail clearly had receives less maintenance than the Larch Creek Trail but was easy enough to follow through meadows and burn areas. In some places it was very well maintained, in other places it was a relatively indistinct. There were several unmarked side trails which I mistook as the Quartz Lake Trail. Clearly, this area has more to offer than an official map would show.
The gem of the afternoon was a walk along a level section of trail high on the south side of Quartz Mountain. The views swept from west to east. The travel was through alpine meadow and few trees interfered with the view. The camera on my phone can’t zoom in on the rest of the Cascades which guarded the horizon with variations in color and form. The two words most immediately in my mind were “divine” and “sublime”.
This slice of heaven ended abruptly, in classic Boundary Trail fashion, at an intersection where the trail forked. One forked looked grey and little used. The tan trail in good condition bent slightly uphill and disappeared within 10 feet at a cairn. Which to follow? The GPS said follow the cairns. It felt schizophrenic.
As the slope began to roll over, the trail picked up again and carried quickly down to stream where where the climb to Bunker Hill started. The fire damage early in the climb was significant. There were also a significant number of cut logs. The trail would have been very difficult to follow but for a significant presence of cairns which had been placed liberally and creatively to mark the way. Before a trail crew had cleared those logs, it might have been impossible to follow the trail as opposed to making your own way. Perhaps the significant quantity of blowdowns had been left for so long that the trail didn’t receive enough traffic to beat the plants back.
I’d been moving slowly and breathing hard due to a heavy stomach from a late lunch. Attaining the top of the ridge which climbed slowly to Bunker Hill took much more effort than the map would have implied. The dramatic views last seen on Quartz Mountain returned along with a clear trail and I was relieved.
It was now a little before 7pm and I’d considered the top of Bunker Hill as a potential place to stop for the night. The views wouldn’t hurt and there were several campsites sheltered in small stands of trees. Four cement blocks with what looked like metal axles were on the east side of the summit which makes me wonder about the history of the area. Perhaps they were footings for a fire watch?
Unfortunately, I hadn’t been thinking ahead and was down to a little less than a half liter of water which would not have been enough for dinner, much less the night. There were two hours of daylight and a little less than 6 miles down to the Pasayten River. While good campsites may appear in the most unlikely places, the map showed only one area which appeared to flatten out. The route seemed to mostly follow the nose of a ridge and so it seemed unlikely to have water until the Pasayten. Six downhill miles in two hours with the motivation of waning daylight would be clearly doable on a normal trail but the Boundary Trail seemed to appear and disappear as it pleased. Also, the front of my left-leg just above the ankle had be aching when stepping downhill. If the sun went down, following it might be very difficult to figure out where to go. Camping on the top of Bunker Hill would have been and been a pleasant experience but with so much daylight, it seemed better to try to do something about the water situation. The trail ran above what the map showed as a seasonal stream and so perhaps there’d be water there. If I got to the flat area without finding water, I decided that I would camp and not risk losing my way in the dark. Decision made, I stood up with the grace of a rusty robot and continued on.
There’s are two routes down from Bunker Hill. On my map, there’s a climbers route marked in small dots on which comes up from the south. It follows a long, broad, soft ridge rising up from the valley which I’d seen on on my approach. It looked enticing, though maps show things getting more complicated below the treeline and that’s what I was hoping to avoid. My intended route followed a different ridge west along the official Boundary Trail and is marked in a bold line. In a classic case of the map not matching the ground, the climbers route was a deep, double rutted line and the main route was invisible where it turned off, marked only by a cairn.
At the point where the main trail turns invisibly off the secondary route, the ridge to the east began forming and on it were several patches of snow. Above the patches of snow were sheltered campsites. I’d brought a stove on this trip and so had everything I wanted: water, a sheltered camp, and a beautiful view. While there was more daylight, I’d logged 14+ hours on my feet and my left leg was hurting in in a “repetitive stress injury” way not a “tired and sore” kind of way. More miles might make tomorrow easier but they weren’t going to improve the situation now so I put down my pack. Camp routine followed: I melted water, cleaned my feet, ate dinner, tied my tarp up between a few trees, enjoyed the sunset, then crawled under my tarp and neslted into my bug bivvy and under my quilt.
Sunday, July 19
I slept well and woke easily at the first hint of light. The morning was dry and warm. This made packing up so much easier than when dew or frost makes everything damp and sloppy while your fingers hurt when you need them to be dexterous. By 4:30am I was following cairns across a broad slope by headlamp. At one point I felt the hoof-falls of a herd of deer through the soil of the ridge as they galloped away, just smudges in the dark at the edge of a clearing. As the edge of the sky turned the color of egg yolk, I picked up a trail again.
The trail ran downhill steeply at first, then shallowly across the drainage under the ridge where I’d camped. There was a stream here and an established campsite. It was comforting knowing that I’ve have had a good situation the night before, even if I hadn’t made the decision to camp where I did.
After that, the trail began degrading. There was a critical left turn onto the ridge which sloped to the Pasayten which I almost missed. I did miss a turn which happened just where a large log had fallen, making it look as though the trail continued underneath. For a while I wandered in an open forest of blowdowns and snags, generally following my GPS until suddenly a section of trail reappeared.
Eventually, signs of the trail became faint again and at a critical moment, I was unable to find another cairn in my direction of travel. On the GPS, the trail took a hard left down a narrow, steep gulley then began to traverse a steep hillside. I’d seen a few places where there might have been trails diving over the side and I could see what might have been scuffs in the dirt from people (or deer). Nothing was clear but the GPS really did seem to indicate that you turned off the gently sloping ridge here, only to meet back up with it later. I’d have been better served by just following the ridge.
The gulley was very steep but mostly grass covered which made for more solid footing. I slipped twice where bare dirt slid under foot from the angle. I naturally lean back away from perceived danger which reduces traction and makes me more likely to slip. Trees were frequent companions which I used to steady myself. I couldn’t quite stay on the line the GPS indicated and decided to find the easiest way and meet back up with it later. As the the trail on the GPS’s map began to travel across the slop and not just down it, I was very glad to have brought stiff shoes intended for kicking steps in snow as they held better for the steep traverse.
Eventually I came to look across a dip where the trail was supposed to cross and contour below a small knob. I saw what might have been a hint of the scar of a trail on the knob but it didn’t seem to come from anywhere or go to anything. I have plenty of experience chasing lines in the dirt which turn out not to be trails and so ignored it. The GPS showed me as being below the trail and so I planned to walk along a bench of sorts and wait for the trail to come down to me. Some deadfall pushed me up a dozen feet or so onto the knob and… I saw a cut log. Looking along the path it indicated, I could see trail. This was a most welcome surprise. Measuring on a map now, I looks like I was off trail for a little over half a mile.
The trail from here was easy to follow. One of the advantages of it cutting across a slope is that you know it probably won’t go to the right or left very far. There were some blowdowns and eventually the trail degraded under wetter conditions as it switch backed down to a water crossing. I was actually quite happy that the water crossing wasn’t overgrown or excessively muddy. The trail just climbed out and contoured out of the drainage.
This brought me to an unexpected, unwelcome, and foreboding sign. It was a three-way intersection between the Hidden Lakes Trail (Not Maintained) and Boundary Trail Re-Route, but was about a mile earlier than expected, apparently because the Boundary Trail had been re-routed. I was expecting to cross the Pasayten River near the site of the Pasayten Cabin and then turn north on the Monument Trail to tag the Canadian border again. Would this re-route connect? What did it mean that the Hidden Lakes Trail was not maintained, especially given the poor state of the Boundary Trail which apparently was maintained. The Hidden Lakes Trail was supposed to be my route home.
What I probably should have done at this point, was to try and take the Hidden Lakes Trail back to my car. If it didn’t go, then I’d learn that as soon as possible and so would have as much time go retrace my steps the long way I’d already come. I considered the option but, the sun hadn’t yet crested the mountains and the Hidden Lakes Trail seemed like it should run a pretty clear course along the Pasayten River. I’d worked my way past so many blowdowns that it didn’t seem like it could be much worse. Maybe the Not Maintained was just a warning because it was a more popular trail and the rangers were trying to scare less experienced hikers. I turned onto the Boundary Trail Re-Route and hoped for the based.
The Boundary Trail Re-Route brought me quickly to the Pasayten which might have been difficult to cross given that we’d had a cold spring and the snowpack was still melting. However, the ford was well chosen and after grabbing a pair of sticks to substitute for the hiking poles I’d forgotten in my car, I crossed and found that the water went only just above my knees and didn’t press hard.
The trail from here wound its way to the edge of a bank of earth and climbed out. I guess this bank represents how wide the Pasayten gets at flood stage or some previous course it had taken. The trail was clear and turned south on top of the bank. I took that left turn and walked for several minutes expecting to find an intersection with the Monument Trail to take me the 1.5 or so miles to the border. Not finding an intersection, I checked the GPS and discovered that I was on the Monument Trail. Retracing my steps to the point where I’d the Boundary Trail Re-Route had climbed the bank, I was stymied that there was no indication of a northbound trail.
I wanted that to tag the border and expecting that a trail might pick up if I persevered just a little bit, I picked the most promising looking line through the grass and followed it, pushing my way through closely packed trees. As I was about to give up, I discovered an old, degrading trail! I followed this north feeling very satisfied with myself. Unfortunately, it too quickly degraded and I found myself making forward progress by walking on blowdowns and taking hints from cut logs which indicated old trial maintenance. Eventually, I looked around and saw nothing but fields of blowdowns. Previously, the hints of a trail had followed an embankment but as that degraded, there was no guidance as to where to go other than to follow a bearing due north. I was here for a hike, not a bushwhack and given the concerns I had about the Hidden Lakes Trail, I didn’t want to burn precious time. I turned around and worked my way back, getting lost in the process and having to use my GPS to get back on course.
Back on the Boundary Trail Re-route, I cruised south for a mile or so to the point where a trail on both my map and GPS crossed the Pasayten. The Boundary Trail in this area had been hacked through a forest of blowdowns and while this made it a very clear trail to follow, it also made it very clear where there was not a a turn-off. There was no side-trail, connector, spur, or other indication of trail where the GPS said there would be a way over to the Pasayten Cabin (apparently now burned down) and then across the river to the Hidden Lakes Trail. I jumped up on a log at the top of another embankment, looked across the river valley, and saw only fields of blowdowns. Stymied for a second time, I walked quickly back, crossed the Pasayten at the re-route and took the Hidden Lakes Trail, making a voice note that I really needed this to go otherwise it would be a very long day.
The Hidden Lakes Trail, while clearly not maintained, was easy to follow, certainly compared with the descent from Bunker Hill. There were some blowdowns and the trail was narrow here, overgrown there, or eroding off a slope in another place, but there was never a question of where it went. Then, just south of where the GPS indicated an intersection with the trail which crossed the Pasayten, the one I’d failed to find on the west side of the Pasayten, the Hidden Lakes Trail descended to the river level and disappeared into grass, blowdowns, and moderate trees. I pushed forward several dozen yards but nothing materialized. I climbed back up to where it had contoured above the river valley and couldn’t see anything which looked like a trail.
From here it was about 5.5 mi to where I had assurances that the Hidden Lakes Trail had been cleared. Bushwhacking in a river valley has been as slow as 0.5mi/hr for me. It was now after 9am and I didn’t want to risk 11hrs of hard travel. The brutal calculus was now that it was much more of a sure thing to return the approximately 30 miles by which I’d come. This was helped by the fact that I thought there were only 5,000 or 6,000 ft of elevation gain which felt like a big effort but not unreasonable. Looking now on Caltopo it appears to be more like 10,000ft of gain which is a very big day no matter how you cut it. While frustrating and anxiety inducing, I’d realized this was a possibility and so the decision was quick to make. I turned around felt a fresh purpose in my stride. Then, just after rejoining the Boundary Trail, I saw a well built, weathered man with an unusual backpack (clearly not from a common backpack vendor), coming towards me. It was around 10:20am and I hadn’t seen a sign of humanity since passing some tents the previous morning. On the Boundary Trail, I’d only been able to discern a single other pair of footprints in the mud.
As we approached each other, I asked the man if he had come in by the Hidden Lakes Trail and happened to be on his way out, hoping desperately that I might follow him along some easy way which I had failed to discern. In describing his route, he explained that he’d come in on the Boundary Trail and not known about the re-route. When he got the the non-existent turn-off, he’d used his GPS (something he uses rarely), to bushwhack across the boggy fields of blowdowns to the old bridge. The bridge is out and he showed me a picture of the footings. He mentioned finding a three-way intersection and some flagging which hinted that the Hidden Lakes Trail might be more real than I’d determined. The going had been very difficult and he’d gotten a pair of gloves from a horse packer at his destination to protect his hands on the way back.
As the conversation continued, it turned out that we’d both hiked the PCT. He said his trail name was Bink, which I recognized but couldn’t place and I told him that I’d been DQ. He mentioned having hiked the PCT several times and having had the speed record before Heather Anderson. I was floored. I was trying to figure out who’d had that record between Scott Williamson and Heather Anderson, and a dumbfound look must have given me away. “Scott Williamson” he said. Oh, I thought. “I’m Isaac” I said and tried not to look too star struck. I’d heard Scott’s name a number of times in the long trail community and read about him in The Pursuit of Endurance. I remembered him being portrayed as a private person, so tried to make some conversational opening whereby it would be appropriate for him to leave if he wanted, but he stayed, smiling a wide smile and throwing his head back at points of common understanding. I asked about how the PCT had changed over the years. We wound up trading beta on trails near the Canyon Creek Trailhead just east of Olympic National Park. His memory was fantastic and he pulled out maps to show me notes he’d made, sometimes as long as 10 years before.
As the conversation wound down, he double-checked that my plan was to hike out a 30 mile day via the Boundary Trail. I explained that at this point, I needed a sure thing and wasn’t willing to risk that I might have to do 5.5 miles of the bushwhacking through terrain similar to what he’d had to do when he crossed the Pasayten. We commiserated over the state of the Boundary Trail, and he remembered that the Park Pass Trail hadn’t been visible from the turn-off. It was validating when someone who I respected for their athletic ability and grit thought I was a little crazy too. He ended by asking if I had enough food and wishing me well on my way trip back to the car.
Shortly after parting ways, I crossed the last stream for several miles until the drainage below the summit of Bunker Hill. I checked that I had sufficient water by pressing up on my water bottle in its pocket and feeling how heavy it was. It felt full so I continued without drawing water. When I pulled it out for a first drink, it had about four mouthfuls. The mindgames and bodily awareness which happen when you’re worried about water are fascinating. I monitored every bead of sweat, how quickly my clothes dried, how cool the sweat made me feel, how thirsty I felt, and on and on. This was eventually mixed with finding my way up the trail which had eluded me on the way down. Following it in full sunlight helped, though several times I had to stop, look around, and retrace a few steps before determining which way to go. It was in this section where my my climbing muscles ran out of free vert (“free vert” is related to an odd effect where my legs hit a point where they rapidly go from feeling strong to weak; once weak they never return to strong for the rest of the day as though my “free vertical gain” had been spent I’d have to do real work for any remaining uphill travel). While the burned out snags did little to provide shade, they allowed me to see the top of Bunker Hill from a distance and monitor my progress with precision.
When I finally came to a little stream in the bowl under the summit, it felt like salvation. I rested heavily and drank a lot of water, initially in small sips. Having been out of water had made me lose objectivity about my condition and it was a little concerning to have a second measure of exhaustion tell me that I’d been quite depleted. I ate a light lunch, remembering how hard it had been after an oversized lunch they day before. In addition to stopping for a conversation, I had not made quick progress uphill. My left leg was now bugging me, even on the uphills. It was about 1:40pm when I left and I made it a goal to be back at Peeve Pass and the easy travel of the Larch Creek Trail by 5pm, something which seemed like an easy goal under normal conditions and I secretly hoped to make it by 4pm.
The trip back over Bunker Hill and Quartz Mountain were beautiful but the need for constant progress was in the back of my mind and I tried to take fewer pictures. Still, the flowers were out and I noticed some things I hadn’t before. On the beautiful traverse behind Quartz Mountain I sat down and had something of a pity party while I released my left leg from the ache it felt on every step. If I hadn’t forgotten poles, I could have managed my leg better. However, when hikes stop being fun for me, it’s usually something external to the route or conditions, something about expectations. In this case, as was the case on the Hayduke before I let myself skip a section, adversity had extended the trip and the need to be back to my employer at an appointed time weighed heavily on me. My calculated finish time for the day swung between 11pm and 4am. Then there would be a 5hr drive home which would have be salted with just enough naps to safely operate a vehicle. If this had been an open-ended thru-hike, I might have just stopped for the night to prevent further injury and revel longer in the natural beauty. I checked the time. In two minutes it would be 4pm, the pre-determined end-time of my rest stop. Pity parties are useful when you need to accept your fate and the rest noticeably improved the ache in my left leg but progress was the medicine I needed and those two minutes meant I could get a head start.
I reached Peeve Pass ahead of time at 4:50pm (goal of 5pm) but still feeling slow because I was so close to a low-ball goal. Turning on to the well kept Larch Creek trail was an emotional relief because I didn’t feel subject to the vagaries of trail condition. There were five climbs between me and my car. The new goal was to finish the first three before sunset. This wound up being easy since my leg stopped hurting on uphills and the first three climbs were relatively close. Since I wasn’t moving fast and was at peace with my fate, I got to enjoy the same country which brought the words, “awe” and “whole lot of pretty” to mind on the way out, but was now improved by the light of golden hour.
The descent southbound from Larch Pass was long and despite being gently graded, aggravating to my left leg which I was now processing as pain, not just soreness or ache. I tried to run at a shuffling pace as that keeps my foot in a more consistently flexed position instead of flexing and unflexing as with a walking stride. This worked for a bit then became slower than walking, so I alternated between walking to recover energy until I wanted to shuffle along again to reduce ache.
My mind was wrapped up in this back and forth and projecting finish times when I heard, “Isaac” shouted after me. I shuffle-ran back a few dozen yards and found Noah and Milo, the friends I’d met on the night before starting this fiasco. Since I was going to have a late finish anyways, really wanted a break, and knew that conversation would help my mental state, I sat with them for 10 or 20 minutes and traded stories from our weekend. It sounded like they’d gone up the trail I’d seen ascending Sand Ridge and had gotten the same sweeping views I’d seen when traversing along Quartz Mountain. They didn’t keep me long but I moved on with spirits much improved.
My immediate goals were now to get to the turn-off for Dollar Watch Pass before sundown and to find a place to poop which would make the chore as quick and easy as possible. I succeeded on both counts.
Night came at the stream from which the trail climbs to Three Fools Pass. I’d stopped to draw water, to refill the snack pockets on my pack, and to put on my headlamp. Without being able to see much outside the headlamp, I found myself taking the climb slow since I couldn’t gauge how much distance was left. My leg didn’t hurt and my mind entertained flights of fancy. It was pleasant and peaceful and I was working through the last 6.3 miles.
The final descent from Billy Goat Pass was very trying. Despite being 1.8 miles and downhill, I stopped twice to sit down. I was having to brace for the pain on each left footfall and was trying not to slip into guarding behavior or bad form. Additionally, the soles of my feet were both aching from pressure and the lacerating feeling of the fine fibers of my socks being mashed into them like a net made of cheese wire. I think this was due to having picked control-oriented shoes with thin, stiff soles and almost no padding. They would have been a good choice if there’d been snow but now they left me wanting the shoes which I’ve come to think of as trail slippers.
I reached my car at 12:37am and was oddly controlled, arranging my gear for the drive while standing instead of immediately collapsing into a seat. While relieved that the worst was now over, this seemed oddly like an aid station in a long race. The next leg would be the drive home and after that a day of work. Somewhere in there, I’d need to sleep. A key detail was to put my socks in a plastic bag where they couldn’t stink up the car. Unfortunately shoes were too large to fit and my feet would have felt horrible in plastic so I let them dry for a time before coming to terms with the level of stench I’d be living in until I got home. As I pulled out of the trailhead, the balls of my feet hurt enough from using the brake that I let the dirt road carry me away at the fastest speed I could rationalize as safe. The long anticipated caffienated soda was ineffective and just a few miles later, my head began to swim with sleep. I pulled over, leaned back my seat, laid my quilt over me, and passed out.
July 20, 2020 – Epilogue
It took three naps to get home. The longest was when I pulled off at the Canyon Creek Trailhead after having watched the sun rise over the North Cascades.
When I reached cell phone service, my phone exploded with the contents of the busy weekend I’d missed and I tried to reply to the time sensitive ones and let my emergency contacts know I was safe. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to tell the not to expect to me until Monday morning.
I pulled into my parking spot around 9:40am and managed to be showered and working from home by 10am. Late, but not usually so in the software industry.
It was about two days before I was walking normally and had to back out of a trip to the Enchantments the following weekend to let my leg rest. Since running doesn’t hurt it as much, I ran 12 miles to officially finish the GVRAT on the same day as my mother. This probably set the recovery back but some things in life are important.
Finally, a big thanks to Noah, Milo, and Scott for their conversations on this misadventure. I didn’t give any of you this blog’s URL, but if any of you happen to find this please know that your brief companionship was a significant boon to my spirits in a rough moment. I hope to see you out there again some time.
I started this blog during my first thru-hike so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself for both friends and family. As there’s more to life than thru-hiking, I eventually decided to preserve memories of overnight backpacking trips here as well. Today we take the next step in this blog’s devolution: day-hikes, gear-reviews, and guest posts.
My earliest distinct memory of Michael was that we both attended an annual backpacking trip to the Olympic Coast arranged by our then church group. Much has since changed for both of us. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why we never drifted apart. Perhaps it’s for the same reason that last weekend we could be found walking through the local mountains in wetsuits with drybags on our backs. I’ll let him tell you about that.
Hi, my name is Michael Moshofsky and I am honored to be the first guest to author a post on IsaacTakesAHike. Isaac and I have been friends going on 7+ years and during that time we have experienced a number of adventures together.
One of my favorite memories was when Isaac almost ran me over with his car… During the winter before Isaac hiked the PCT, he wanted to gain some experience hiking a snowy trail during a rainstorm. He is always prepared! Well, his usual hiking friends were smart enough to check the weather and didn’t agree to join. I was dumb enough to not check the weather until the morning of the trip and was already committed. Anyway, Isaac’s car got stuck in the snow, so I volunteered to get out and push. I walked to the front of the car and started pushing. The plan was for Isaac to gun it in reverse to get us out of the snowy ditch that we were stuck in. It turns out he was mistakenly in “Drive” rather than “Reverse”. I survived and have been on many adventures with Isaac since!
For our latest adventure, Isaac and I decided to hike ~13 miles and swim 5 alpine lakes along the way. This was inspired by some of Isaac’s friends, Ella and Claire, who thru-swam the Enchantments last year [Ella’s write-up]. Isaac and I are also training for the Panama City Ironman coming this November, so we wanted to find a fun way to get some much needed swim training in.
The adventure started with an audible given road closures, but we quickly got hiking after starting our departure from the Denny Creek Trailhead. Our first alpine lake, Melakwa Lake, arrived just 4 miles later. We proceeded to put on our wetsuits at the water’s edge with campers watching in horror. It wasn’t even 9 am yet. The water was cold. Snow still lined some sides of the lake. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I was going to be able to get in. The cold hurt, but I did conquer my fear after being inspired by some heckling onlookers.
This is where our first wetsuit question occurred: sleeves verses no sleeves? My wetsuit was purchased primarily for use during triathlons. For that use case, I prefer sleeveless. In this situation, having sleeves is much more desirable.
We were also faced with a second question: thickness? In terms of warmth, thickness is to be desired. However, I had a much easier time both storing the wetsuit and taking it on/off. During the hike we thought this was due to it being thinner. It turns out Isaac’s was 4/3mm and mine was 5/3mm. It was probably lack of sleeves, capri length legs, and a longer zipper which made my transitions faster.
After a short (~100 yards), but chilly, swim. We were faced with our next dilemma: to hike in the wetsuit or to transition back to normal hiking attire? I chose to wear my wetsuit with the top folded down in front and a t-shirt on. Isaac transitioned back to normal clothes, strapping the wetsuit to the outside of his bag. My reasoning for wearing the bottoms was that it would give me a chance to experience hiking in something similar to woman’s yoga pants without the funny looks. Though, I still received some confused and funny stares from hikers along the way…
From this experiment, we learned that your socks and shoes get much wetter when hiking in your wetsuit.
Our second lake was Lower Tuscohatchie Lake. The water was much warmer and we swam 600+ yards. Afterwards, it was a longer trek to our next destination, so I opted to transition back into my normal hiking clothes. We were reminded that after summits the best views are from the center of lakes. Unfortunately, neither one of us was brave enough to risk dropping our phone to snap pictures mid-swim.
Our third lake was Pratt Lake. It would be our first lake where we would be required to pull our gear in our bags while swimming. We were prepared. We both brought the drysack-backpack that we received as a part of the Victoria Ironman 70.3 from 2019 – another one of Isaac and my previous adventures. The bags worked flawlessly. They were so buoyant that seal was hardly tested because it remained above the water line. Note, we cleverly used the backpack straps as a waist harness and trail line: one strap went around our waists while the other was used to attach to the trailing bag. Another tip, bring a plastic bag for your muddy shoes. I had one while Isaac was left with a muddy bag interior. Pratt lake added about 700 more yards to our ledger.
Isaac used a second drybag inside his drybag-backpack. It wasn’t needed, but I recommend this strategy and will steal it in the future myself.
After Pratt Lake, we both changed out of our wetsuits for the hike up to a ridge along a mountain and into a new drainage. At our fourth lake, Rainbow, we met an extremely nice couple who graciously let us use their campsite as a launching pad into the lake. We swapped some hiking stories given that they had just run across a black bear the previous day. Rainbow Lake was a short 50 yard swim. Together, we decided to hoof it to our fifth and final lake in our wetsuits. Isaac went all out and wore the entire thing from ankle to wrist.
We determined this strategy was not so pleasant for the groinal region and do not recommend others try it. Also, this is where the wetsuit’s thickness works against you as your body starts to overheat.
When we arrived at our final lake, Mason, we were greeted with a full audience given the popularity of the destination. All of the campsites near the water were full, so we were forced to put into the water next to a group of tents and hammocks. A confused onlooker unzipped their hammock to the two of us standing a few feet away in wetsuits. We again pulled our drybag-backpacks behind us to one-way swim the lake. We exited the water at a hidden and unoccupied campsite- the best camping location at Mason lake. Isaac knew about this campsite because he had discovered it while swimming on a previous trip. You really only know that it exists if you adventure by water. Mason lake added another 250 yards rounding the day out at a total of 1,700 yards (or about a mile). Note, that it was a mile swimming the more difficult “heads-up” versions of freestyle and breaststroke given it was too cold to put our heads in the water.
So what is the best wetsuit for hiking? If you aren’t asking this question, you’re missing all the fun!
The Desolation Double is a trip up the East Bank Trail and Lightning Creek Trails along Ross Lake in the North Cascades up to the Canadian border (~32mi) and back. The reason it’s not called the East Bank Out-and-back is because you summit Desolation Peak at 6086ft (~10mi) going both ways. If you’re doing the official Desolation Double as an Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge, you’re supposed to read a book by Jack Kerouac because he spent time in the fire lookout on top of Desolation Peak. I tried to do that once it wasn’t worth doing again.
My introduction to the East Bank and Lightning Creek Trails was in summer 2018, when testing my legs after ACL surgery. I did an out and back to Canada, the knee held together, and my hiking ambitions took flight. A few weeks later, my friend Ella and I failed the Desolation Double after bivvying with insufficient gear on Desolation Peak’s false summit in unexpectedly bad weather. The southern part of the route overlaps the western side of the Devil’s Dome Loop, which I’d done in 2017 as a last hike before ACL surgery, and was part of my Anacortes Crossing – Castle Pass Loop trip in 2019. So, really, this adventure wasn’t about getting out and enjoying nature because I’d enjoyed this particular bit of nature quite a lot. Memories, however, are worth revisiting, particularly when done with friends on a ridiculous, arbitrary adventure of our choosing. Technically what happened is that Ella wanted a training route and the Desolation Double matched the distance, grade, and elevation of the route for which she was training. I was invited and it turns out I’m a “yes” man for this kind of thing.
Thursday, July 2 – Prelude
I picked up Ella after work. There had been some negotiation over timing largely based on what we thought our employers would accommodate. One way or another, the goal was to get to Canyon Creek Trailhead in time to have a relaxed evening and go to bed early. Friday morning would come early (for me at least, apparently Ella did 4am wake-ups for years).
Canyon Creek TH was a strategic basecamp. Our journey would be largely within North Cascades National Park which requires permits for camping and parking. Permits require showing up the day before your a trip or wasting several hours on the morning of the trip. Given current events, it would seem apropos to analyze the privilege this requires to do long weekend trips in national parks. Since we weren’t getting away from work early enough to get a permit on Thursday night, we chose to stay just east of North Cascades National Park on USFS land. This would add three miles of walking to get to the East Bank TH where the Desolation Double starts. Unfortunately, the bridge across the creek at Canyon Creek TH was out so those three miles would be road walk.
The drive to Canyon Creek TH was a little under three hours and we pulled in around 8pm. Despite it being Independence Day weekend, we had the place to ourselves. To underscore how unexpected that is I have to point out that this is one of the most popular weekends of the year for camping and the campsites here are about 15 yards from the parking lot and 5-10 from a sizeable creek. We’d eaten on the drive to avoid the time pressure of having to cook in camp, so I set up my backpacking hammock (which took several attempts as I’m not good with knots), Ella set up her tent and we were done. Camp was seemed strangely empty without more gear strewn around. At some point Ella said she’d tried to lying in my hammock and it made her sick. Fortunately, she suppressed the desire to vomit and got out. With nothing else to do, we stood by the creek. We were silent except for rare observations like how difficult it was to keep your eyes in one place as the mid-stream turbulence flowed past. Your eyes would always try to follow it. The rushing noise of the water acted as something of a sensory deprivation tank. You didn’t notice anything or perceive anything except the water. The light faded. I turned in. Ella took a seat by the stream.
Friday, July 3
I thought wake-up time was 4am but I woke up to Ella’s voice calling through the fabric walls of my hammock that it was 3:40am. Sleeping near a stream is always peaceful. Fortunately waking up was too.
Packing up didn’t take long for me since I was just bringing a running vest. Ella wanted to use the trip as a training for an ambitious upcoming endeavor and so she carried my quilt, sleeping pad, and pillow to add weight to her pack. The idea was that we’d meet Ross at the border and he’d have shelter for me. I thought the backup plans was to squeeze into Ella’s tent if Ross didn’t show. Bringing anything for me was hedge against Ross not showing because he could have provided my sleeping arrangements in full. As we realized later, there had been a miscommunication and Ella had only brought her bivvy. Ross would have to be there.
Breakfast was brownies my mother had sent as part of a care package after I ran my first 100 miler. This is something of a callback to 2016 when my mother gave away so many brownies to PCT hikers, including Ella, that people would run into me and say, “Oh you’re DQ? Your mom is wonderful. She makes great brownies”. Just to be clear my mom’s brownies are made with Ghiradelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix and love. This is aught to be the definition of “special brownies”. I’ve made brownies with Ghiradelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix and they just weren’t the same.
The three mile road walk from Canyon Creek TH to East Bank TH was a breeze. It was light enough that I didn’t turn on my headlamp and so forgot about it. The road seemed downhill which made me think that it might be a bit annoying to end a long trip with an uphill. Oddly, when I would come back this way at a run to finish the trip, it would seem downhill as well.
From the trailhead, we just followed East Bank Trail, chatting the whole way. The greenery was luscious, the trail was easy, and we kept a good pace for the 16ish miles to the base of Desolation Peak. The East Bank Trail’s most defining attribute is how unmemorable it is. This creates an effect where you always, always, always underestimate the time it takes to get anywhere. The effect is compounded when you’re talking since you’re less engaged with the trail.
The turn-off up Desolation Peak is a little complicated because of how the trails intersect and wrap around the mountain. We made the same wrong turn as we did last time, but at least we were quick to recognize it. Also, it helped that it wasn’t dark. The hike up Desolation peak is something like 4.7mi long and 4200ft of vertical gain. However, it starts with a long flat section so the climb is compressed. We passed a old man and young man hiking together with some of the largest packs I’ve ever seen. One appeared to have a full sized camp chair. After that, the difference between my full running vest (probably 5lbs) and Ella’s full training pack (probably 25lbs) kicked in and I took off ahead of her.
When coming down Desolation Peak, it would be odd to realize how little of the uphill I remembered because it seemed to go quickly. I think I spotted the tree where I’d sat down after bonking after midnight in the fog and rain on our previous Desolation Double attempt.
There was enough mist and fog that the views from the top of Desolation Peak were mystical but not grand. I’m developing a theory that Clif Bars (>90% of the calories I’d packed) are fine for low-exertion activities like walking along the gently rolling East Bank Trail. For high-exertion activities like hiking quickly up Desolation Peak, they become unpalatable and I had no appetite for lunch. I’ve also recently realized that it’s much warmer to take off sweaty layers, dry out, and then put on warm layers than to put on insulation immediately over sweaty layers. I suppose this is obvious in hindsight but it’s a little odd to start the warming-up process by taking clothes off. I walked around fire watch house with my shirt off, flapping my arms for better airflow and hoping that the heat from my uphill effort would dry me off. There was an older couple from Grand Coulee at the top and I’m not sure what they thought of me. Apparently, I wasn’t so odd that we couldn’t take each other’s pictures.
Ella made it up a little over 20 minutes later and my appetite had returned enough to choke down some Clif Bars. She had potato chips and we compared calorie counts. Much to my surprise, things came out equal so I think I might try to crush up potato chips into a baggie the size of a Clif Bar the next time I need compact calories.
The hike down felt like it took a long time. It was strange to think that we’d climbed all that way up.
At the bottom of Desolation Peak, the trail goes east and becomes the Lightning Creek Trail to wrap around the side of the peak away from the lake. It’s a little disappointing not to walk along the lake which would be a much shorter way. It looks like there may have once been a trail to do that, so I’m curious about the history. The east side allows access to the Castle Pass Trail which connects to the PCT. Also, the trail to the east starts by climbing, not exactly what I wanted to do at the moment but at least it wasn’t down.
As the trail turned north again, we ran across a group heading south which stopped us to say that there were blowdowns completely covering the trail so that it seemed impassable. Ella had beta from a friend that the trail was a mess so this wasn’t a surprise. The forest began to change to consist of denser, smaller trees. Less light got through and the feeling grew more sinister.
Initially, we hoped that somehow the group we’d just encountered been mistaken because it’d been so nice walking on cleanly cut, well graded trail. The first blowdown we encountered had fallen onto the trail long-wise so we joked that it was completely covering the trail and since that matched the description we’d been given, perhaps that had been the worst of it. Shortly after that, we were forced to bypass several brief sections where the trail was covered and the steep hillside provided better travel. While the worst bypass was the first one, it slowed us down enough that we started to become concerned about when we’d make it to Canada. We’d told Ross to expect us between 8 and 9pm and been about on track for 8pm. If this slowed us to 2mph, we’d be getting in well after dark and it would be hard to connect.
After descending to Lightning Creek, we found the shack and bridge had dodged the falling trees. The blowdowns became less frequent, though one small bridge had received glancing blows from three trees. We started encountering some cut trees and thought we might have reached clean trail again. Then we ran across more blowdowns, some of which had been cleared. What criteria had they used to decide what was cut and what wasn’t? Why would a trail crew decide to skip past some blowdowns which were much worse? I don’t know but I’m thankful for the logs we didn’t we didn’t have to approach like a jungle gym.
Not being sure what pace we’d be able to keep and with limited daylight on my mind, I found myself floating ahead of Ella. It helped that my running vest made it easier to duck under or vault over logs. Separating on the climbs and bypasses had broken up the running conversation which had dominated the first part of the hike.
Just before crossing Lightning Creek to get to Nightmare Camp (yes, that’s the actual name), there’s a sign which says “Hozomeen 6.1” and “Ross Lake 8.7”. We were far enough into the hike now that while this differed from what we calculated based the track Ella had been keeping on her watch, we weren’t sure what to believe. This sign seemed to indicate we had farther to go than we’d thought. With uncertainty from the blowdowns, our finish time might be as late as 11pm, but it certainly seemed like we weren’t going to be finishing in daylight.
The last climb on the route is from Nightmare Camp up to a small pass. From the topo map it looked to be 600-700ft. It moved oddly, jumping from one flat bench, carrying on for a flat bit, then jumping up again. At their edges, the flat benches seemed to fall off steeply into the river valley. It made me think of a mossy, treed version of so many parts of the Hayduke. At one point the trail climbs the arm of ridge. Then it traces up a narrow ravine with a picturesque little stream in the middle. It isn’t clear when you’ve reached the top. The grade becomes gentle, the ravine widens, and at some point you realize it’s tipped over and you’re walking slightly downhill. It’s a strange climb because each section is so distinct as though it had been assembled from mismatched pieces. This makes oddly memorable compared with most of the route whose uniformity leaves relatively little impression per mile walked.
About the time we passed Willow Lake, Ella decided to challenge the distance we’d guessed based on the sign before Nightmare. In 2018 when hiking this route (minus Desolation Peak) to try big miles on my new ACL, I’d run out of daylight near Willow Lake and based on the mileage marker at Nightmare called it for the night, giving up on the attempt to make the border. The next morning I’d decided I really wanted to touch the border and managed to do so and make it back to my car by dark despite having come up short the day before. Back in the present, I didn’t want to put too much stock in the idea that we might be close enough finish before nightfall, but it seemed to jive with my memory that this section was shorter than the sign indicated.
Shortly after Willow Lake, we passed through some area which triggered a strong memory of being “almost done”. The trail sloped gently but constantly downhill, the hill rose on the left, the vegetation was luscious and well watered. My mind kicked into home-stretch mode. Of course, the end dragged out for longer than I remembered but the end is always the longest part of any trip. Finally, though the trail passed a rocky section with sparse trees and deposited us in a dirt parking lot by a greying cabin. It was before 8pm and still light out. This was a huge win emotionally and a great relief.
From here, it was just mile or so road walk to the Canadian border. There was plenty of soft light to see by. The road wasn’t paved but it was hard enough that I carried my poles. There were campsites and we started looking for a place where we might be able to camp. Due to a miscommunication, I didn’t have a shelter and it was looking like it would drizzle in the night. There were a few spots with dense trees, picnic tables, and if necessary, the camp toilets had long eves. I really hoped we’d find Ross.
We were low on water and had expected to draw from a stream which appeared to cross the road on the map. When we got there, it wasn’t conveniently accessible, but we would need water for the night so we decided to draw from the lake if we had to. Then we saw a spigot by the road. I turned the handle and water came out. I put my soft bottle under it but the liquid was milky. Perhaps it was stale? We let the water run for a bit then tried again. Still milky. I decided to taste it anyways and while it wasn’t quite like the streams we’d been drawing from, it seemed clean. Ella expressed great displeasure having to fill up with milky water. A minute or two later, I looked at her bottles and they were clear. It was just a little aeration.
The road carried us along as we played, “where should we camp if we can’t find Ross?”. Eventually, it passed a small cabin and reached a gate closed across the road. This was the Canadian border. Nothing to really prevent cross border access and it I don’t remember seeing anything about not crossing into Canada. This was good since the plan was to meet Ross in the Ross Lake Campground a few hundred meters on the other side. As we approached the gate and we began wondering what came next. There was a figure in Canada who might have been Ross but their gait wasn’t right and when they turned so we could see them in profile, there was no rich beard gracing their chin. There was, however, a bright-orange piece of tagboard with “Isaac & Ella” written across the top. I pointed this out and Ella lost her shit. She convulsed with inarticulate sounds of happiness interspersed with exclamations of “I love him” and other joyous expressions. I don’t think I’ve previously witnessed such intense expression of positive emotion.
Ross had left us directions to his van (he’s vandwelling at the moment). We stepped over the gate and found a short trail down to a boardwalk. We stopped just long enough point this out to some people who were failing to mount the steep, muddy bank to the road. A few steps later, we made out a figure dressed in dark colors like the person at the border. This one had Ross’s confident gait. I might not have Ella’s depth of emotional expression but I there was some volume behind the salutation I used to the figure’s attention. Ross turned towards us and restraint was required to draw close at a measured pace and give a large, warm, dignified hug instead running up and tackling him.
Ross showed us to his van and had recovery food out immediately. We wanted to hear about his adventures in Betsy, his van, and he wanted to hear about our day. It was so good to finally sit down and just be done. We’d been walking for something like 18 hours and other than lunch had stopped only long enough to draw water. Instead of sleeping rough with minimal rations, our journey had brought us to the comfort of a friend cooking dinner and trading stories in a shelter with running water and recessed lighting.
Ella and I had been planning to fore an early bedtime on Ross so we could get an early start the next day. Of course that didn’t quite happen but after a dinner of freshly cooked stir fry, a tour of the van’s features, and a hasty clean-up, Ross drove about a kilometer to where we could park for the night. I rolled out my sleeping pad on the floor next to Ross’s bed/bench where he slept. Ella laid out with her head almost between the seats but managed to fit. It was a little after 10pm when we turned off the lights and drifted off in the coziness of a well insulated space. Of course this meant we all overheated since we’d brought quilts intended for use in highly breathable tents but that didn’t change the fact that we were happy. Very, very, happy.
Saturday, July 4
I’m not sure when the alarm went off but this morning but it was a little bit slower. We out of the van and walking around 4:30am. Ross had packed most of this stuff the night before and so there was a little bit less of his usual last-minute packing routine where something gets forgotten (pointedly, he remembered his bagels this time). Some of this packing had happened while I was laying down and he was opening and closing a drawer which cleared my by a very small margin. Every time he was about to open it, I’d see a little smile creep across his face.
Since we’d parked a short distance up the road, we had a bonus walk to get to the border. There were signs posted warning about non-essential travel, but I think getting home counts as essential so we stepped over the gate like the callous international criminals we are.
Ross had packed his gear into a running vest with a rolltop compartment large enough for minimal overnight gear. It looked like a fat running vest and so, since I enjoy objecting to the term “fastpacking”, decided to call this “fatpacking”. Much dissension followed since it’s obviously a fat vest, not a fat pack but I think I now prefer the term fatpacking to fastpacking.
Since Ross hadn’t hiked with us the day before, we alternated between trying to terrify him about all the blowdowns and reassure him that it wasn’t really so bad. He claims not to have been training much recently and so was worried about keeping up. Of course, this is a guy who for whom not training meant he did >67mi at the Quarantine Backyard Ultra before quitting instead of timing out. Ross kept up just fine.
Initially we were all hiking together until Ella dropped back with that “I’ve got to dig a cathole” look. As experienced hiking partners, Ross and I just kept walking. This understanding that it’s OK to separate and rejoin and trust that your hiking partner with wait somewhere and that you’ll catch up without really knowing when that’ll happen is one of the cultural differences between shorter outdoors trips and thru-hiker culture. We certainly enjoy each other’s company but given the amount of time you’d have to spend tied to another person, it’s easier to let people go at their own pace trust them to be responsible.
As it turns out, I too had to dig a cathole and after drawing water hiked a distance off trail, away from the water, and did my business. I was fortunate enough to have chosen a sheltered spot as it started raining during the process. When I made it back, Ella had passed and Ross waited for me. We walked and talked about topics varying from gloves to old movies. My left knee had started hurting when stressed on the descent into Nightmare and I could feel my right leg getting tired compensating. Given that Desolation Peak was still ahead, this was a little worrying. We caught up to Ella just as she reached Nightmare Camp. In her low for the day (on trips with Ella, you will always play Highs and Lows), she said that she’d hoped to stay ahead of us until after Nightmare. I thought her low would have been what she later shared, that she’d dug a cathole and not been able to poop. Anyone who’s felt the need to dig a cathole and then actually done the unpleasant chore of digging a proper one knows that it would feel like a terrible waste if it weren’t necessary.
At some point while catching up to Ella, Ross and I encountered a pair of women Ella and I had passed the day before on their way north near Willow Lake. They were the only people we’d seen on the Lightning Creek Trail. They had real backpacker backpacks and were working their way through a large mass of deadfall by handing their packs over and under the logs. I felt a little sheepish being able to just hop over and under things with a light-weight, low profile vest. We asked if Ella had passed. They said she had. We asked about their trip. They’d done ~30mi from the Ross Lake dam up to Hozomeen Lake. They hadn’t been moving quickly the day before and so it must have taken them the full day and speaks highly of their capabilities. At some point walking another mile isn’t just about muscular strength, but the soreness of your feet. They also mentioned having had to wait for three hours to get a permit on Thursday for such a rarely used campsite as Hozomeen Lake. In my mind, this validated our decision to have started and ended just outside North Cascades National Park instead of dealing with the bureaucracy. I was kind of surprised that the women didn’t tease us a little about having running vests while Ella carried a full backpack. Apparently they’d told her, in, I suspect, commiserating tones, that our packs were stupid. It is strange being on such an asymmetricly loaded trip, but Ella wanted training and I was still in recovery mode. What I was very pleased not to receive was any crap implying that men should be rough and tough and carry heavy stuff. I’ve had bystanders or people I pass comment on me not conforming to that version of masculinity and while I find their small-mindedness amusing, it detracts from the experience.
Looking back on it, we didn’t push the miles which took us to the base of Desolation Peak as hard as we had the day before. We’d had a debate about whether northbound or southbound was preferable on the route. I’d picked southbound because you got all the blowdowns and climbs out of the way and could cruise the second half without pressure. Apparently we hadn’t felt any pressure on the first half southbound and this logic would wind up reversed. When we started up Desolation Peak, I somehow thought that it was 10:30am which seemed a little slower than yesterday but only by the same amount that our start had been delayed. Ella said something about probably getting down around 5pm but I didn’t really process it and only later realized that we were much farther behind schedule than I’d thought. Ross and I took off up the switchbacks deep in a conversation about the trade-offs involved with living in small towns.
Ross and I eventually fell into separate paces. I passed a pot bellied fellow in mountaineering boots who told me his friends were up ahead and to tell them that “Paul was on his way up”. I did eventually catch his friends spread between the false and true summits and passed the message. Ross and Ella made it up and we had lunch. More Clif Bars for me, though Ross gave me a gummy worm to mix things up. Neither Ross nor Ella had seen someone matching Paul’s description which was a little worrisome. Eventually Paul’s friends decided to head down and our little trio had the views to ourselves. Things were clearer than the day before but there was still a cloud later with some low drifters which tended to obscure things just when you tried to take a picture. Just after we started down, we saw Paul’s friends coming back up, this time he was with them.
We left the summit a little before 2pm and weren’t back to the base until about 4:30 or 5pm. Ella would fall back then catch up at a run. It seemed intentional, like she was practicing running downhill. It had taken us 6 hours to get to the turnoff to Desolation Peak on the way in so we were looking at a 10:30 – 11pm finish. What happened? I like finishing with light in the sky and so this realization put me out of sorts. My pace quickened and I wasn’t much for conversation. I’d get ahead but not far. Ross would catch up at water crossings before I’d filled my water bottles and try to sleep before Ella showed up. While usually out of sight, she was never more than a minute or two behind. She and I would mime laughter to each other watching Ross sleep or meditate, then I’d wake him.
The one notable event in the first miles south of Desolation Peak was when we saw a bridge jumper climb over a No Jumping sign to dive into the water. There was a small boat waiting for him below.
Somewhere before Rainbow Point, Ella said that she thought there were just six miles after the next camp. This seemed too optimistic to me, but between two GPSs, some approximations from the map, and sloppy mental conversions between kilometers and miles, it was anyone’s guess. At May Creek it looked like were were still on pace to finish after dark. Ella proposed having dinner, which she’d been carrying as a training weight, in an hour or so. Some time later, I asked if we could try to have dinner at the East Bank Trailhead since chasing daylight would be a major motivator. At Roland Creek, I was feeling full of energy. I tend to get a second wind around evening and was eating well. I stopped by the trail sign. Ross pulled up and tried to nap standing up. I pitched him on the idea of me running the ~9mi remaining (my estimate) to the car and bringing it back to the East Bank TH so that he and Ella only had to hike ~6. They didn’t object and neither did Ella, so off I went.
If anything, the fact that I was running, and uphill for the first two miles (a detail I’d forgotten about from our hike in), just goes to show that walking and running are fundamentally different. At one point, I kicked a rock which didn’t move and so I moved from vertical to horizontal. Fortunately the ground was soft. I stopped once before the descent to pee and check the GPS. If all went well, I’d get to the East Bank TH around 9pm, still within daylight. From there, the road to the car wouldn’t require a headlight. Given the option, I have a strong preference against headlights.
This wasn’t my first time racing daylight to the East Bank TH and so the run was full of memories. The shape of the trail and it’s relation to the river in the deep ravine below and WA 20 on the other side were the primary memory triggers. I’ve read stories where blind people would feel someone’s face with their finger tips to recognize the person. This was like me tracing a familiar path along the face of some wilderness. The angle at which you can see the bridge. The hope it gives out. The short climb out on the other side destroying that hope. It was all familiar. I exited the East Bank Trailhead around 9:10pm and turned left onto the road. It was still light.
The road run felt downhill which was odd since it had felt downhill to walk to the trailhead from the car. The pavement was much harder under my feet than the trail had been and while initially I made good time, I’d burned through the energy which had kicked off this endeavor and was too focused on the better food at the car to eat anything more. Eventually, I passed a sign which I’d remembered driving past shortly before Canyon Creek TH. The next turn didn’t have Canyon Creek TH. The turn thereafter had a large pullout which aped the shape of Canyon Creek TH and an interpretive sign which I’d forgotten about. I was empty and decided to walk so I could check the GPS and catch my breath. The GPS said it was around the next bend. Of course. I jogged it in, opened my car, and drank a lot of sugary, caffeinated, carbonated beverage.
Canyon Creek TH was not full but now held a number of other cars. Dark had fallen so I put on my headlamp and went to check out the camping options. We’d either have to encroach on another site or set up in a flat non-campsite. I drove back to the East Bank TH and there were Ross and Ella! It was funny to have a joyous reunion when I’d only just left them but showing up in a different mode of transport changed the dynamic. Ella hadn’t started making dinner so we rearranged the contents of the car so Ross could have a seat and drove back to Canyon Creek.
Ross and I established a camp around an fire ring which was a little close to another campsite. In exchange for food and shelter yesterday, we were putting Ross up tonight and I felt like quite a car camper handing him a duffel bag with a tent, sleeping bag, and air pad instead of a tightly optimized ultralight pack. Ella made dinner in her Jetboil by the car and despite it being relatively simple fare, it tasted amazing. After 12 Clif Bars, I think my body wanted anything with salt, fat, protein, or soft texture and that pretty much described dinner: ramen, tortellini, a salmon packet, potato chips, hummus, and olives. We sat eating in the folding chairs I’d brought to mimic the post-hike hangout Ross had put on a few weeks before when we overnighted at Deep Lake but it was dark so we didn’t linger before going to bed.
Sunday, July 5 – Epilogue
Ross was going to run back to Canada and so we couldn’t wait around all morning. I’d brought a skillet and omelette ingredients and so got up a little before 6am to try and make my first skillet-on-the-fire meal. As usual, I overestimated the quantity of meat and vegetables so I became something of an egg-dish instead of an omelette. Despite being an early morning, I’d risen without an alarm and didn’t feel rushed or tired. The fire had started easily which wasn’t surprising given the pre-treated log and quantity of denatured alcohol used in doing so. Ross’s tent had been pitched with one stake in the fire ring so I moved pulled that out and then put a folding chair in front of the entry so he wouldn’t wake up and roll out into the fire. The one thing I hadn’t brought was a pot holder. While casting around for something suitable, Ella tossed me her hiking skirt which had dried overnight. I guess even our attempts at car camping have the marks of being hiker trash.
Packing up camp is surprisingly easy when it just involves throwing things into large bags and carrying them a few yards to the car. I could get used to this car camping thing.
We dropped Ross off at the East Bank Trailhead to start his run back to Canada where Betsy (his van) was waiting. He repacked his bag. We had some last minute small talk. Hugs were exchanged. Promises made to stay in touch. Yada, yada, yada. Finally, he got up, started his watch and took off with a loping gait. 7 hours and 28 minutes later he was home again.
This was a quick trip done on Friday-Saturday to avoid incoming rain. Rachel Lake is a very popular destination, about four miles one way. It’s a gentle walk along the outlet stream until the head of the valley then climbs quickly to the lake. High ROI the entire way.
Anda picked me up after work without ceremony. Our goal was to get to Rachel Lake before sunset and between the drive and the hike there was no daylight to waste. Late starts have forced us to shorten our trips in the past.
This was my first time to Rachel Lake and while I knew it was popular, it seemed like every turnout on the dirt road to the trailhead was occupied with a car. There was only one parking spot in the lot. Day hikers were milling around everywhere.
The first thing I noticed on the Rachel Lake Trail was how closely it follows the outlet stream from Rachel Lake. This means that you’re almost immediately rewarded with a picturesque, rushing water to reward you willingness to step onto a dirt path. No delayed gratification here.
While the trail is gentle at first, it climbs and eventually begins to switchback. This remains close to the stream.
Shortly after starting the climb, a hiker coming down hill stopped to mention that the trail would get hard to follow. There was a little ambiguity in what he was saying but it sounded like the problem was that the stream overran the trail and it was hard to pick which branch of stream to follow.
The trail seemed easy enough to follow, despite several stream crossing, diverging social trails, and a small waterfall.
There’d been a few places where you could make a wrong turn, but there were always clues. Usually the clues were obvious like branches across the social trail telling you not to go there. Eventually, the stream wound up flooding down the trail. The adventure came when we tried to divert onto a social trail to stay dry. We returned to the main trail at a point where several branches of the stream converged and it might not have been clear which one was the trail, if any where the trail at all. Ultimately, the scuff marks on the edge where hikers had tried to keep their feet dry gave a pretty clear indication of where to go.
Eventually the trail turned off the waterway. After nice viewpoint to look back down the valley, we started hitting patches of snow. I’d been expecting snow on the lake, but not on the edges and this was a little concerning. By the time we got to the lake, the trail was pretty well buried, only peaking out here and there to provide hints that the footprints we were following were not those of someone lost. When we came to the lake, however, the low ridge retaining the lake seemed largely dry of snow and devoid of people – our plan to avoid the crowds by coming in early season had worked.
It turns out that there were plenty of people, they were just occupying the campsites. We found them as soon as we started looking for a place to set up. Despite most campsites being occupied, people were polite. We actually had to lower our voices because everyone else was making so little noise. Such good manners in the outdoors community! The one exception to the general peace was a fellow whose dog would bark when people got too close. His dog looked like a slightly larger version of Anda’s dog (which she hadn’t brought) and so this potential disturber of the peace became a friend over a serendipitous and socially-distant supper conversation.
Anda sleeps late by my standards so I had a chance to explore a little and eat breakfast before finding the door of her tent open. The sun was up, though behind clouds. Since Rachel Lake sits above a valley and is retained by such a thin berm, there are nice views away from the lake as well.
Rachel Lake is longer than it first appears and while the outlet stream is small, it was a little tricky to cross without getting wet since snow covered the far bank and crossing required standing on a wet, narrow log. Rain, which had been corralled to the west by the mountains, finally came. It was haltingly at first but made the return trip a little wet.
Things had dried out by the time we were back to the car. A new set of day hikers and overnighters swarmed past us, making me glad we’d visited outside peak times. We were on the road home by noon, an oddly early time to be done with an adventure, but sometimes its good to enjoy the little things in life.
I’m not sure what’s so attractive about the Issy Alps 100 mi. The route is basically every hill or mountain west of Mailbox Peak until the Seattle metro area. Instead of enjoying each peak one at a time while walking at a leisurely pace with your friends on a Saturday morning, you enjoy them all at once with sore legs and sleep deprivation, sometimes in the dark and mostly alone. However, with all the races canceled due to COVID-19, and a feeling of unfinished business after my run of the Issy Alps 100 km, I set out to get my first hundred miler.
Prepping for the run was an exercise in compromises. Was I sufficiently recovered from the GVRAT? Maybe, maybe not, but running on the summer solstice to maximize daylight seemed like a good idea. How to fit 36hrs of food into my pack for an unsupported run? How about Chocolate Chip Clif Bars and Chewy Bars which were supposed to come on a thru-hike with me this summer. They tend not to go down well in large quantities so the mix was leavened with GUs left over from the 100km run. Knowing that my stomach tends go downhill over a race, especially if a course climbs, I decided to eat only Clif Bars for the first 50k to get them out of the way and then try to survive on GUs and Chewy Bars for the rest. In an effort to add a little variety, I mashed some yams and put them in a ziplocks but didn’t think to pack a spoon. There wasn’t room for both ziplocks so I only brought one. Would it rain? Hopefully not much since didn’t want to carry a raincoat bungie’d to outside of my pack. How cold would it be? hopefully not too cold because I definitely didn’t have space for a full fleece. The weather seemed like it’d just cooperate (<0.1″ rain predicted, 48F at night) but things can still be volatile at this time of year. I’d seen a post on social media saying that if you weren’t wearing shorts and flip-flops, it wasn’t June. I did decide to wear shorts without tights but not the flip-flops. Also, I don’t think that poster was from the Pacific Northwest.
Saturday Morning – Mailbox to Little Si – First 50k
Alarm at 3:30am. Driving to High Point Trailhead by 4:00am. By 4:30am I was waiting for the ride I’d scheduled the night before (I decided this cost was the price of my race entry fee). In a moment of inspiration, I scratched out a plea not to tow my car despite parking in front of clear and regularly spaced “No Overnight Parking” signs. My first transgression of the run. The ride shows up around 4:40am. On the way to the lower Mailbox parking area, the driver asks how I’m getting back to my car and I explain that I’ll be walking back. He doesn’t really seem to know how to respond. Around 5:05am I’m dropped off. Some guys are gearing up for morning hike and one of them acquiesces to snap a starting line photo.
Have run the 100km version before, there were some optimizations I wanted to make for time. The first was not taking Mailbox slow. I did have to slow a little on the uphill (1:36 at the top – maybe 4min ahead of my 100km pace) but the real bet came on the descent when I stashed my trekking poles and took the large, pounding drops to quickly navigate the broken, eroding, root-laced Old Mailbox Trail. Time was just under 2:30 back at the gate which is half an hour faster than I’ve ever done a roundtrip on Mailbox. I wasn’t hurting yet so this felt like a huge win. Given that I would later not run most runnable sections of the course, I should have probably taken a more conservative approach to start.
I settled into an alternating walk and run on the Granite Creek Connector trail and was shortly passed by two women I’d seen pushing hard up the Old Mailbox Trail when I had been descending past the intersection with the new trail. They were running and chatting. I was doing neither. Gotta run your own race.
The descent to the Granite Creek Trailhead was dry enough that I didn’t really have to worry about slipping, a nice change from when I ran the 100km. Again, no slowing-but-preserving pole use on the downhill. At the parking lot, I texted Paul an ETA of 9:30 – 10:30 at the base of Teneriffe, crossed the bridge, and ducked down the connector trail.
The Snoqualmie River had been running high and so I’d been concerned that the connector trail might be flooded or mucky. Neither was true beyond it’s normal state. In one place where the trail collapsed near a small water crossing some time last fall or summer, the bypass is becoming well enough used to be visible. In all, I found myself at the CCC road in what felt like a short time. To save battery, I had configured my watch to shut the screen off so wasn’t monitoring speed along this very runnable section. One of things which makes the Issy Alps so interesting for me is that there is so much climbing that when I do get runnable sections, I don’t take advantage of them. 9:47 found me texting Paul that I was starting up Teneriffe and that if he took the new trail, we might cross on my way down.
The climb to Teneriffe Falls starts gradually and I was able to shuffle-jog much of it before the rocky sections. I didn’t feel like I was moving quickly but it I felt very athletic dancing past people on the edge of the trail if they didn’t step aside when I called, “on your left” or “passing left”. At one point I even was able to confirm that this was in fact the trail to the Falls while hiking past a women and girl consulting a map. We’d both be lost if this weren’t the correct trail. The one time I kinda cut the course was when I took advantage of some multi-trailing to bypass the main switchback at Teneriffe Falls which was packed with about 20 people. At this point, my watch rolled over to a new mile so I have pretty clear stats for the Kamizake trail. The next time my watch would beep to indicate that another mile had passed, I was on the summit block and 1:10 and 2,300ft had passed. As a trio of tall, stocky young men with a dog which they’d had to carry up some of the rocks said, “this is steep”.
The effort on the Kamikaze Trail had had caused me to start disassociating and letting my mind wander off into flights of fancy. My balance didn’t feel solid – on par with when you don’t want a second beer because the first one kicked way harder than one beer should. It’s a strange place because you can tell you’re weak and not all there but you’re not panting or in pain. The limiting reagent is some kind of ability to handle full-system load. You could push but would risk of losing your connection to the world. The first time I sat down during this run was on the top of Teneriffe while I stashed my poles, watched the cloud density fluctuate, and try to plan my next moves. I gave up on the planning and decided to just keep moving slowly and wait to recover. I did take the precaution at the first intersection of asking a couple if I was turning on the the correct trail.
The main Teneriffe trail takes you along a ridge and down and old forest road, rocky and hard-packed. It was runnable enough that as I sobered up I let myself fall into a jog, if only because I couldn’t rationalize not running. My legs weren’t in it anymore. The footing was stable but uneven and the grade was such that each step was largely just shock absorption. This section down to the Talus Loop goes on longer than you want it too. Despite expecting this effect from my 100km run, “Am I there yet?” worked it’s way into my head every time I saw a west-bound social trail splitting off the main trail. When I finally did turn up the Talus Loop, I fell into a walk despite the varying angle lending itself to run-walking. A runner passed me coming downhill and I pre-emptively stepped aside to snatch a few seconds of guilt free rest. Just being polite. The stream just before Talus Loop intersects the Mt Si trail wasn’t deep enough and didn’t have little pour-offs to completely fill my bottles so I took what I could and then drank a bunch.
I’d been forcing myself to eat a Clif Bar every hour and had noticed that soon thereafter think I was about to have stomach issues. This would make me not want to eat and require the next bar to go down only with a lot of water and small bites. So, sitting on the little log on Talus Loop, I put Tailwind into my bottles hoping that would avoid the necessity of eating, never mind that experience has shown that this isn’t true for me. I’d repackaged bulk Tailwind into popsicle bags (net savings of $0.65/oz!) and so probably looked like a drug addict pouring white powder out of a baggie. Food is a kind of performance enhancing drug, at least in the sense that it’s required for performance.
Going up Mt. Si felt pretty much like a hike. I was passing people but at about the same pace as when hiking. I was starting to lean forward and stick my butt out to give my quads a rest while pulling uphill with my hamstrings. Someone who was actually running passed me. Then coming down the trail, I heard someone say, “There he is”. It was Paul and his friend Brendan. “OK, we’re going back up”, he told Brendan, and they turned around to follow me. I’d given up on meeting Paul, having texted him at the Talus Loop that we’d probably missed each other and wished him well. Apparently they’d tried to chase me up the Kamikaze Trail but then not having caught up, took the ridge to Mt. Si to get ahead. Part of the confusion was that I’d started an hour earlier than I’d originally told him and by his math, I’d been flying. If only it were so.
Our stop and the viewpoint which marks the “top” of Mt Si (the route to Haystack isn’t part of the Issy Alps) was brief. I stashed my poles, put something in my face, and snapped the preceding picture of Paul and Brendan. Then we went down the Old Si Trail, Paul needing only short prompts from me to fill the silence. It was good to have company, particularly when the nipple came off one of my bottles and hid itself in some twigs. Brendan found it while Paul was running a search pattern. We drew water at Little Si, just after having joined the Little Si Trail. Then it was Paul’s turn to have lost something. I felt like a bad friend for continuing while he searched, but I was on the clock. He and Brendan caught me well before the top which says something about how fast I could move at this point. I mentioned feeling pretty beat and we discussed strategy, which boiled down to the odds of being able to make it under Highway 18 before nightfall. They tried to make me feel like I had a chance.
Paul and Brendan turned off back to their car where we’d joined the Little Si Trail and I continued down the parking lot, now using poles for the descent. It was a revelation that I could move downhill without hurting. My legs had moved past the initial phase of tiredness and were now sore as though I were starting a new run too soon after having finished some other great effort. It’s strange to be sore from a race you’re still running.
Per the strategy of optimizing out small breaks, I didn’t linger at the Little Si Trailhead which marked the end of the first 50k, but headed down the road, across the bridge, and up the Snoqualmie Valley Trail towards Rattlesnake Mountain. Recovery was foremost in my mind and I still had accessible food so I ate with the plan of taking my first pack-off break at the base of Rattlesnake to rearrange food for the second 50k and prep for the night. In the end, I wound up walking most of the Snoqualmie Valley Trail which is a huge indictment of my race strategy to this point, despite finishing the first 50k in 11:50 compared with 13hrs when I did it as part of the 100km route (recording note: the watch showed ~12,800ft gain). That gain was now being used up on easy terrain instead of built up.
Saturday Night – Rattlesnake to Tiger – Second 50k
When I got to the base of the Rattlesnake Mountain trail, I was greeted by 1) a swollen Rattlesnake Lake which made it very convenient to refill water and 2) several hundred feet of chainlink fences with signs saying the trail was closed due to to COVD-19 social distancing guidelines. Not that I hadn’t walked past a sign at the gate saying the trail was closed but that was a lot of fencing. It seemed like the authorities really wanted to make a point. It seemed like the end. I sat down and called Paul to see if he could give me a ride back to High Point Trailhead but he was in the middle of dinner. Then I watched a couple walk blatantly around the fence on a now beaten social path. This gave me pause. There was a cloudburst and they turned around. Then a large family came down the trail and skirted the fence. So I called Paul back to let him know I wouldn’t need the ride.
Rattlesnake Mountain is not normally a difficult trail. The problem was that I wasn’t moving quickly despite having been slow on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail and had a sit-down break at the base of the trail. Daylight was wasting and I was worried about whether the bushes and brambles would have overgrown the lightly maintained trail under Highway 18, making it difficult to navigate in the dark. Under normal conditions, I could just run and be there at about nightfall. That just wasn’t happening. I was now into my supply of GUs and was able to eat without having to brace for stomach concerns. The light was at the point where it was almost dark enough for a headlamp when I was in the trees and light enough that it still seemed like early evening in open areas. At East Peak, the wind was blowing sat on a bench to get a headlight, light-weight fleece, and eat some of the precious mashed yams. GU isn’t very filling and so while it seems to provide enough calories, I can enter a state of “stomach collapse” where my stomach turns into a knot because there’s not enough inside to keep its walls apart. There was a drizzle which I decided to ignore, hoping it wouldn’t get worse. Fog came and went, making it hard to use the headlamp.
The descent down Rattlesnake, after the rolling of the top ridge, and incorrectly taking the trail at the top when you’re supposed to take the road which parallels it, was a relief. My mind settled into a good place. I was below the fog and could see when using the headlamp, I was jogging downhill with trekking poles and felt like I was moving well again but without too much load on my legs. I turned west at the power lines and followed the road. Coming through here last time had involved constant navigation but it was easier now. Not that I didn’t take a wrong turn in the mountain bike trail network, but it was only one and I’d been able to run through all the turns and check my watch after the fact for confirmation rather than having to pull out the more detailed GPS on my phone at each bifurcation or deviation. Pushing through the overgrown trail under the powerlines in the dark was a little unnerving because it was hard to tell if you’d missed a branch of the trail. On the other hand, the path of least resistance was the correct one so perhaps the lack of distraction was a boon. To my surprise, I was simply dumped out on the edge of the Raging River, under Highway 18 with relatively little fanfare. The approach had taken much less mental energy than I’d expected.
The sound of Raging River grew suddenly in the last few yards approaching it. Having seen all the other swollen rivers on this run, that was an immediate concern. Looking across though, it didn’t really seem to be running high and without searching for an alternate line, I plunged in. It was just above knee deep and the water pushed, but not hard. I only had to avoid one pool formed behind a large rock into which most of a trekking pole disappeared before I pulled it back. Conveniently, my headlamp had shown all the way across from the beginning so I knew my line to the take-out point. The take-out point was near a large pylon supporting the highway overhead, and had the assurance of a whisp of trail leading up the bank.
The dark may have been a blessing because just as I had been herded down to and across Raging River without distraction, I was picked up on the other side and carried by a clear path of least resistance through the weeds. I only checked my GPS once where a jeep track ran perpendicular to the the powerline cut and wanted to be sure where to enter and exit it. In what felt like just moments, I was at Deep Creek without the bushwhacking through blackberries I’d been bracing for. Deep Creek initially looked to be running a little high but it wasn’t and I splashed across, drew water, and was once again pulled uphill along a clear path of least resistance.
Reaching the road on the south end of Tiger Mountain was a big emotional relief. One of the to major obstacles I’d have to navigate during the night was now passed and it had been much shorter and easier than I’d expected. The road and the Northwest Timber Trail to which it lead were very runnable. I jogged here and there to try and pick up some time but focused on walking quickly, with long strides, and pushing with my poles. The travel was easy and I soon found myself at the Tiger Mountain Road which would run 3.5 miles to the summit. This was well graded and I tried to achieve a long, hamstring-oriented stride. Less than 0.5mi from the top the desire for sleep caught up in that way where your mind and body actively try to shut down. It was about 1am. When I would force my eyes to stay open, my vision would blur. I tried to cede ground to sleep slowly, letting my eyes shut in long, regular blinks and trying to keep a regular stride. Eventually I sat down and ate a Chewy Bar. My stomach was empty and in the excitement of being close to the end of the last climb in the second 50km I wasn’t sure that I’d kept up eating. I hadn’t immediately been able to find a good place to sit and so having to push a little farther was another good way of slowing the compromise with sleep. After a short break, I continued and was greeted by red, otherworldly light which turned out to be some visual effect of the yellow-orange lights on the facility at the top of the Tiger’s main peak.
I let myself go on the descent and it felt easy. I didn’t require myself to run, trying to walk quickly and use poles to preserve my legs as the dirt bike trail which forms the first portion of the descent to High Point Trailhead rolled on its way down the hill. Where you turn off into the top of the clearcut, there was a sign that the trail was closed due to COVID-19 and crews working on a trail which might be felling trees – even on weekends. I doubted they were working at 2am. This was the beginning of the night’s second navigation obstacle.
There isn’t a trail through the clear cut but there’s a large, raised, logging road which forms a long catch line so you’re safe plunging off over fallen trees and low, dead brush in a down-and-to-the-left direction. I was a little chagrined to hit the road near its end, thinking that if I’d started the bushwhack a little sooner or steered a little too far left, I’d have overshot. For what it’s worth, I hadn’t followed the new mountain bike trail as I might have so I think the road is still a pretty generous catch line, certainly in the daylight. I turned down the road and followed it around several turns. If this had been my first time through, it would have been a little nerve wracking. The road is cross-cut with deep furrows so you run a few steps down one side, jump the little rivulet at the bottom, and try to carry your speed back up to the roadbed. This section deviates from the GPX track which is just a straight line. Based on a comment from the route creator, I think it’s an intentional design to force people to find their own way as the GPX track has a similar defect under Highway 18. The last two or three road mounds are grassy and particularly large and seem to be degrading into nothing when suddenly you can see the reflectors on a bridge. This bridge is back on the route and, even knowing what to expect, it was a most welcome sight. The shock of having to turn off the nice, safe, clear road onto the poorly maintained East Tiger Trail was much reduced this time through.
From here to High Point TH had been the scene of slowly increasing panic during my 100km effort. At that time, the sun was beginning to go down and I didn’t know how much distance was left other than that it was clearly farther than I’d expected. Things seemed to drag out forever. This time, I’d memorized the turns and despite being dark, it went reasonably quickly, though I did check my watch several times to ensure I was on track. The sky between the tree tops was lightening a little as I descended the Lingering Trail onto the frontage road, and made my way back to my car at an easy jog. It was a relief to see my car hadn’t been towed.
Sunday Morning – Tiger to Cougar and back – Final >50k
There was nothing in my car with which to resupply, so I didn’t bother opening it. Instead, I sat on a rock rearranging food and gear to for another day segment. Caffienated products rested on my left rib, non-caffienated on the right. Non-gel were in the front-right and my phone was in the front-left. Somehow this all took about 20 minutes. I’d arrived at Highpoint TH around 23:10 (elapsed time) and it was now 23:30. An hour faster than my 100km effort but I felt like I’d wasted that gain (recording note: the watch said something like 19,200 ft of vert). I dallied again near the parking lot trailhead to sit on a bench and take my lightweight fleece off. I didn’t feel weak, but speed was clearly not a concern. Sleepiness set in again as I started up the West Tiger Mountain Trail and after fighting it a while, I saw a concrete bench several tens of yards ahead and decided I would sit on it. I looked up again and it turned out to be just a pair stones. I’d hear that hallucinations were common in longer distance events. I’d been mistaking interesting tree stumps for people out of the corner of my eye for some time but something this real while I was this tired was too much. I saw a log just the right size for a pillow, set my alarm for 15 minutes, and let myself sleep. 8min later a light drizzle woke me up and I continued uphill.
My mental math wasn’t great but it seemed like it had taken 2hrs to get up to Tiger #1, even factoring out the nap and other stops. I think that’s usually 1:20 via the Cable Line Trail. I felt like I was falling behind and wanted to move so after the bypass trail, I let myself run down the Bootleg Trail as fast as I could with poles, energy cost and tired legs be damned. Ironically, this paid off as after the Bootleg Trail comes the 15 Mile Railroad Grade which is quite runnable due to it’s relatively good surface and slight downhill grade. Sparse grass is growing over the trail but only tickles your legs as you go by. My memory was that the 15 Mile Railroad Grade was supposed to intersect a trail coming up from the left and at the intersection thereafter become the Tiger Mountain Trail. Feeling good and wanting to press the advantage while I had it, I carried on past a sign on my left as the the trail became more overgrown. At knee-high, you could still run through the overgrowth. After pushing through a head-high section, I decided to check my GPS and found I was seriously off route.
Pushing my way back up the trail was a huge emotional downer. I just didn’t care to move faster than a walk. I was trying to guess how far I’d gone off-route and eventually decided it was probably 1mi outbound for a total loss of 2 miles. When I found the Tiger Mountain Trail, it was the sign I’d run past thinking it was the intersection before the Tiger Mountain Trail. Also, it went uphill and then rolled on its way west instead of being smooth and runnable. The disappointment was harsh.
Eventually I got to the One View Trail, almost made a wrong turn onto the Poo Poo Point Trail (per the map, you turn onto it when crossing it the second time, though I don’t remember doing this), and started seeing energetic people charging up the trail. I was jogging downhill by bouncing with my calves and the balls of my feet trying to use my poles, arms, and chest as shock absorbers. While my legs did twinge with each step, it wasn’t as hard on my quads as running downhill without poles, even if my hands were beginning to feel raw. The hill seemed long and winding, eventually crossing several bridges, and coming out to Front Street by the high school.
“Just 4 more climbs” I told myself on my way up Sycamore St to the East Ridge Trail on Squak Mountain. I was now going uphill by thrusting my butt way out and waddling with hamstrings and outer glutes. An observer might have thought it was a training drill. It was just survival.
I stopped at the first bridge on the East Side trail on Squak to gather water. The stream was running low and it was difficult to fill the soft bottles. They have the disadvantage of a bottle since they have a hard top which prevents the mouth from getting next to a shallow flow of water and the disadvantage of a bladder since the body collapses when submerged. I settled for half-filled bottles and tried to make up the extra by drinking. It struck me that where it had been easy to collect water, I had probably stopped for less time that I would have at an aid station. Where it was difficult, I stopped for longer. The East Side Trail was runnable but I didn’t really bother. Running on flat or even slight rolls took real effort. Fast walking, propelled by my poles, could be accomplished with relatively little effort. The speed difference just didn’t seem that much and while I had less than a marathon to go, I kept reminding myself that a even a half-marathon isn’t actually a very short distance.
The descent to WA 900 on the West Access Trail was pretty much like the descent on Tiger: jogging down while planting a pole with each step to keep the shock off my quads. Ascending Cougar was so slow that when I spotted some very fat hikers pushing hard, it wasn’t initially clear to me that I was going to overtake them despite thus far having overtaken every hiker a with a similar lead. Shortly thereafter I turned onto the Deceiver Trail and decided it was so named because it winds all over the place leaving you completely without a sense of direction or how much you’ve descended. On the Deceiver Trail, I started having to make water rationing decisions because I hadn’t filled up below Shy Bear Pass and was passed by a runner with a medium running pack who was flying. The Deceiver was clearly mocking me.
So inspired to at least appear like I wasn’t out of place in my athletic garb, I jogged after turning onto the Indian Trail which marked the start of the return back to High Point TH. At one point, I passed a woman who nodded to me and then told her child, “say hi to the … [yes there was a pause] … walker”. It was nice to external confirmation that I was moving as slowly as I thought.
Normally, I might have monitored my speed on my GPS watch. However, I had configured it to turn off the display in the hopes of getting it to last 41hrs instead of 32hrs, enough that I decided not to bring an extra battery pack. Not being tempted to check my watch had eased the pain of consciousness and reduced the weight of the future. Shortly after having turned back west up the Quarry Trail, onto the penultimate climb of the route, my watch beeped to tell me that it was at 10% battery and estimated only 3hrs left. If I switched to Ultra Mode, it promised 10hrs. I was over 3hrs out. It was a blow to have have to switch to Ultra as I had minimized every setting except GPS resolution in the hope of maintaining an accurate track. A full track was more important than an accurate one and so I made the change.
Until this point, I’d been calculating distance remaining by looking at the distance and subtracting it from 102 (2mi added for the overrun on the 15 Mile RR Grade). Now, I reached as far back over my head as I could to get the paper maps in the other sleeve of my pack. I was walking anyways and so could study them. I’d annotated these with key mileage markers and now found that they differed slightly from my watch-based calculations. From just below the top of Cougar Mountain, I’d have about 10.5 miles left and given that I was shooting for <36hrs, I could make it at 3mph with a few minutes to spare! This was huge. Since getting back on the Tiger Mountain Trail after overrunning it, I’d been trying to catch up the point where a 3mph pace would get me in on time. Oddly, feeling that I would make it was mental boost. It actually lightened my step and carried me down Cougar and back up and over Squak. I had a long stop on the way up for a difficult water draw since I’d gone dry and wound up losing some time. However, with an estimated 5.5mi remaining, I was at the top of the East Ridge trail and had 1:54 before the 36hr goal (my C goal, but any thought of A or B had long since passed). Despite wanting to finish well, I poled my way down to Sycamore St before stashing the poles and running. From here in, I wanted to finish like a runner, even if my pace was that of a walker.
The first hitch in that plan came after successfully navigating to the east of the high school and onto the path north of it. Then I was ambushed by an irrepressible urge to poop, something I hadn’t done in over a day and a half. Just 2.5mi or so, could I hold it? No, I couldn’t and so I dove off into the bushes. This was not a poop I was proud of: insufficient distance from the trail, no trowel, no toilet paper. This is the kind of thing which gives runners a bad name. Fortunately, no one passed and the results didn’t leave me messy. Just as I was about to continue, my watch beeped. Now it was at 3% battery and was going into “Low Power” mode. So much for Ultra Mode. I pulled out my phone and started recording a track there. So much for a complete record of the run.
The second hitch came in the form of my third trail closure of the trip. Clearly I was well beyond a little rule breaking at this point so I walked past the sign and about 10 feet up the hill found a beautiful path whose entrance I’d somehow missed.
The third hitch came on the climb to the Brink trail. The climb is very short. This notwithstanding, it felt like the hardest part of the event (yes, even compared to the 2300ft/mi Kamikaze trail) because my poles were stashed. Sweat burst across my skin in a way it hadn’t during the entire race but I was going to finish like a runner – no poles. There was less than 5km left, I told myself, and I was going to finish strong. I had shit in the bushes without toilet paper and disregarded four posted notices to get here. I damned well was going to finish strong. My legs didn’t didn’t get the memo. Nor did they get it when I reached the top of the Brink trail and started to make my feet step faster and faster hoping that I’d start running. My feet taking steps at the speed of a run but the distance of each step was so short that it was faster to walk. Defeated, I deployed my poles and fell back into a long stride, pushing myself forward from atop my straightened legs like a physics problem involving an inverted pendulum. Still, it was faster than “running”.
I followed the Brink Trail across the first powerline cut to the second, zig-zagged in it, and stepped onto the Swamp Trail. There had been a notice on the Issy Alps site that there was some maintenance in progress and I was mentally prepared to step past another sign and slog through a swamp if necessary. Much to my surprise, the only thing I was met with was fresh trail.
The power walking carried me onto a dirt road which I recognized as being adjacent to the High Point Parking Lot (not to be confused with the High Point Trailhead). No time to stash poles, just try to run. The asphalt road which would take me the short distance back to my car and the end of the this journey was the perfect grade of downhill. The grade broke the rust off my sore, stiff legs and I felt like a runner. It even felt like I was lifting my knees instead of shuffling (looking down to check confirmed this). I flew at what was probably a 5mph sprint and almost had to fall back into a walk when the road leveled. Then another downhill tipped me like a drop of liquid on the edge of a pitcher down into sight of my car and to the gate at the High Point, signalling the end of the run.
Sunday Afternoon – Epilogue
I almost panicked when my watch face didn’t light up the first time I pressed a button. On the second press, held a little extra long, it lit up. The elapsed time was about 35:33. I pressed again to end the route, and hoped that the Saving screen would finish before the battery ran out. A few moments later, and the watch beeped to tell me it was at 2%. It turned out that it had stopped recording a track when it went into low power mode and I’d been fortunate to think to start recording on my phone.
June 21, 2020 was Father’s day and so after some brief texts to Paul and some other friends who I’d updated after each section, I called Dad. Father’s day is supposed to be about the father, not the son so it was a little strange to talk about me and what I’d just done but I was crying and wanted to share it with him. It’s rare that you finish something you’re really proud of at a significant moment in time, and these moments when I’m truly proud of myself are fewer and farther between as I grow older. He seemed to understand. One of my great blessings in life is that my father has always understood me when I needed him to. That’s been true at deep moments like when seeking advice on which job offer to accept out of college (I’ve been there for about 10 years), buying my first real estate (the condo in which I still reside), or as the case now was, understanding that my stomach had turned into a painful knot and I needed to get off the phone and find some food which would require driving in a sleep deprived state since I hadn’t pack a post-race meal. God, I love my Dad.
That meal wound up being a lot of chicken nuggets, Coke, a soft-serve treat with M&Ms, and fries at the nearest drive-through. At the pick-up window, I explained that I’d just run 100 miles, felt it wasn’t safe for me to be operating a car, and asked if I might eat and sleep in their parking lot till I felt ready to go. The young woman at the window seemed unsure what to say initially, then explained this was a common thing for people to do. The food felt like a hedonistic delight. Just sitting without any desire or impulse to move would have as well if my butt hadn’t been so sore that I had to keep shifting to prevent pressure points from developing. Eventually, I opened the window, put my feet up on the edge which tilted my pelvis enough to releave all the pressure, and drifted off to the sounds of Irish fiddle playing from the car radio.
Like many recent adventures, this one started with a text from Ella.
I am guessing you don’t have interest in going camping this weekend. Ross and Clare are coming. You are of course extremely welcome if you do want to. Hoping to get to spectacle lake via salmon la sac
I had just finished the GVRAT the weekend before and so it’s understandable why she might have thought that I might not be able to walk, much less be interested in camping. For a reunion of the cast from last year’s Wonderland trip, however, I very much wanted to get back on my feet. Cue a storm of messages negotiating who actually is going to make it, when we’ll start, primary and backup destinations, route, etc….
Day 1 (Saturday)
On my way to the Salmon La Sac Trailhead, I realized we were probably going to be camping on snow and so would have wet wood. If we camped below the snowline, then we’d probably be at a campsite so popular it would be clean of legal tinder. This was supposed to be more of an easy weekend than a pseudo-thru-hike so I wanted a fire at camp and that would mean packing in my own firewood. Passing through Ronald, the last town before the trailhead, I saw a truck with bundles of firewood and a sign Firewood $5. I pulled over and checked my wallet. Three $1 bills and a few $20s. Payment was honor system so I left a $20 and took four bundles of wood, 3.5 of which are still in the back of my station wagon.
8am found me in the dirt parking lot trying to decide which luxury items to bring because the weren’t all going to fit into the pack which was once large enough to fit 6 days of foot, 2 days of water, and cold weather gear. Firewood definitely, but after that: insulated booties? camp chair? extra foam pad? group tarp in case it rains? Ella rolls up, we have an warm salutation and awkward negotiation to decide on covid-appropriate behavior. She recommends booties, and I strap the foam pad over the top as a lid of the bag which is now too full to close.
Some time before the 10:30am cut-off time we’d imposed for Ross (without his knowledge due to lack of trailhead cellphone service), he rolls up in Betsy, his live-in van. Betsy has grown up from the stripped down Sprinter I first met at the White River 50 miler last year. There was a gas range, hot water, electrical, drywall, soft-close drawers, and boxes of the tools he’d been using to do the renovations. We gave him a few minutes and found that there was even a backpack, camping gear, and two days of food which he packed up. Then we set out for Deep Lake because I’ve hiked past it several times and always wanted to actually camp there.
The trail rose gently through the woods towards Waptus Lake from which we’d turn north to Deep Lake. We caught up on current events and opinions. Ross and I tried to keep our feet dry by rock hopping the several places where water was crossing the trail. This was a little tricky because it’s still early in the season so many rocks and footlogs were slightly submerged or slick with spray. In contrast to our graceful demonstrations of balance, athleticism, and daring, Ella trudged through every stream, regularly soaking her shoes.
Around 1pm, we found an established campsite on the south bank of the Waptus River and decided to have a “first lunch” to be followed by a second lunch at Waptus Lake in twoish miles. The weather was better than forecast and the river was peaceful. Just like our last trip together, Ross had packed in a hurry and left some of his food behind, so I lent him a tortilla. Despite almost constant chatter while hiking and eating, we fell into a pensive silence for several minutes after lunch, enjoying full stomachs and calming surroundings.
The snow covering the trail had gone from patchy to a full, dirty, groundcover. There were tracks but we assumed they were destined for camping at Waptus Lake which might be on the south side whereas our objective was Deep Lake at the head of a valley which ran north from Waptus Lake. The fastest way there, according to our GPS apps was the Spinola Creek trail which was untracked. After a brief consultation, we took the road not traveled.
It turns out that the Spinola Creek Trail was untracked because it takes you to a bridge which has been washed out for so long that where we had turned off the main track, there’s a well worn, but clear, trail sign saying so. We wandered around in the snow for a bit until we hit the Waptus River and started looking for a ford. Eventually we found a former forest road which had a trail! That trail lead us first to a potential ford which we assessed as looking much shallower than it really was (a common trap). Continuing, we found a beautiful pair of solid, concrete footings, directly across from one another as though they had once held up a bridge just where the river narrowed and turned into rapids.
So we turned back and found a much more direct route back to the turnoff, along what seemed to be an abandoned forest road. It was a great case study in how, even though we’d followed the GPS for a bit on the way out, we’d completely missed the easiest way to go. After rejoining the tracks to Waptus Lake, we spotted another group through the trees. They were following their GPS and we were following their tracks but somehow we all made it to an easy ford of the Waptus River. People were dallying on the bank so I plunged ahead finally getting my feet wet (they were already wet from the snow). It was a little above knee deep and it’d have been a little more comfortable if I’d use good stream crossing tactics (cut upstream so you can walk downstream without fighting the current where it’s deepest). Ross took his socks off and you could see the cold shock on his face when he stepped in. I wrung my socks out and reshod myself while Ross put his dry socks followed by wet shoes. Ella had walked across and dubbed herself “Ice Queen”, deigning any foot care. In the group behind us, the first person got part way across then realized they’d forgotten their hiking poles and had to go back.
The trail resumed on shallow snow and ran flat almost until Waptus Lake where we turned off at a trail sign pointing to Deep Lake. It started up a forest road with patchy, untracked snow, and then became dry. Eventually, we wound up follow the GPS through the brush until we saw a bridge up and to our right. Dry trail! Then we turned left up a valley. It was strange to see a beautifully crafted bridge on the other end of the Spinola Creek Trail when we’d been blocked by a washed out bridge on the other end of that trail.
The dry trail continued up up to an intersection with the PCT. It was cause for celebration and nostalgia as we’d all hiked it in 2016 and it would take us north from Waptus to Deep lake. Shortly after that, there was a small clearing and we saw a large, glossy black bear. It was still for a moment and then sauntered off as I pulled the camera out.
From there it was back up on to the snow which grew deep enough to provide snow bridges over the small streams running down the hillside. It was while standing on one of these that I reached down to my hipbelt pocket to get my phone. The phone wasn’t there. My phone is too big to fit in the pocket so I’d been wedging three of its corners in and zipping it as closed as I could. This is a common issue with my model of backpack which was resolved in the next model. No wonder mine had been on sale. We noted the position and resolved to start a search from there back to the bear sighting on our way out the next day.
The snow was eventually deep enough to cover everything except a small rocky point where we stopped for a quick break and one last look back down the valley before getting to Deep Lake. It was kinda fun deciding whether to take switchbacks or cut straight up them since we didn’t have to worry about erosion. While the PCT is relatively well graded, we tended to wander up and down across the snow, leading to a new euphemism for pointless-ups-and-downs (usually an Appalachian Trail expression): “the alternate PCT experience”.
The trail splits to go around a small hill shortly before Deep Lake We tried to go right, down to the river, crossing it on a snowbridge, then rising slowly through a meadow to the east of the hill. We couldn’t find a way which didn’t dump us into the raging outlet stream from Deep Lake and wound up going over the hill. Sometimes it’s nice to travel on well packed snow since you don’t have to worry about the bushes whacking you when you’re off trail. Also, there’s boot skiing.
After wandering over what would have been a swamp if it weren’t buried in snow, we reached the final water crossing. Initially, it looked like we’d have to slide down a snowbank then jump into the river. I was kind of looking forward to trying it since it was shallow where you had to jump in but, perhaps for the better, we found a snowbank with a little bare dirt at the bottom just up from the egress point. From there, it was a flat walk to Deep Lake with a Cathedral Peak rising over it.
We found a small raised spot to set up camp. There were tress which was a comforting sign that we weren’t actually camping on the lake. Also, the GPS app had a tent sign there. Out came my luxury items: a foam pad to put my gear on without it freezing, insulated booties with dry socks (as the sun went behind the ridge above us, the snow hardened so these didn’t get wet), and three sticks of firewood.
The problem with having packed in the firewood is that we still didn’t really have any tinder or anything to make a base for the fire. My little swiss army knife wasn’t going to split much in the way of kindling from the logs. Ultimately, we found some large, sodden pieces of bark to make a floor which, if less then ideal, was at least better than trying to lay the logs on the snow directly. Burnable trash served as the tinder and some scavenged twigs broken off dead branches above the snow made for kindling. It took a long time and a lot of tending to build a core of heat strong enough to get the large logs to catch. Ella and I were on opposite sides and would frequently blow on our side of the fire to give it more oxygen. This would send a plume of smoke and steam into the other person’s face. Everything steamed, even the kindling and moss, so drying the fuel wound up being a key part of fire tending. We’d placed one log angled across the other two which sat on the mat of bark, hoping that it would trap some heat and eventually catch. It wasn’t until we put some small branches over the top log, that it stayed lit and we could spend enough time away from fire tending to actually enjoy the fire and dry our shoes.
The fire was so weak that despite initially having tried to use trekking poles to hold our shoes the way a marshmellow or hot-dog is roasted, we were able to simply hold the shoes with our bare hands. Done properly, this warmed our hands as well. The shoes would steam whenever they were brought away from the fire which was a delightful visual effect. Ross missed out on the fun, having turned in early to make up for the late night of driving. He might have been able to warm his feet up after all the snow and snowmelt.
Day 2 (Sunday)
Sunday was a lazy morning, aided Cathedral Peak which blocked the sun until it was high enough to crest the ridges above us. Breakfast in bed is a luxury in a normal house where building codes enforce the separation of sleeping accommodations and stoves (at least, so I assume, what other reason could there be?). In a tent you can roll onto your side and make breakfast in an open vestibule.
We packed up and wandered back through the snow, taking the other way around the hill from the afternoon before to avoid some of the soggier snow. I asked Ross for his early-life story starting and he started sharing an excellent biography starting with his parents. There’s something about walking which takes the pressure off talking. There’s no need to be funny, or engaging, to have a point or punchline. Your body enjoys the “alternate PCT” experience and your mind enjoys conversation and companionship.
As we came out of the snow onto the dry trail, we started to keep an eye out for my phone. Eventually, someone remembered a downed tree which I had crawled under and so had probably knocked my phone out of it’s insecure place on my hipbelt. Still, we checked other likely spots where I’d jumped over trees or between rocks. Ross and I were moving at a normal pace, but keeping a lookout. Ella was walking notably slower and her downcast face looked sad. She dragged her hiking poles like she was moping. Technically, this isn’t too strange since Ella doesn’t usually bring trekking poles and when they’re not necessary she does strange and playful things with them instead of carrying them in a balanced position or using them unnecessarily like a normal person. Still, she cut a sad figure as she looked for my phone.
When we reached the deadfall which I’d crawled under and probably lost my phone, I took my pack off so I could looks around properly. I was first on scene but nothing jumped out at me. I was about to crawl under and take a closer look when Ella arrived and immediately dove under the tree. After poking around for a second, she ecstatically exclaimed that she’d found it and passed it back out to me. I tried to get a picture of her still fumbling around under the log but was too late. We then got a delightful story from her childhood illustrating how much she loves finding things.
We followed the PCT down to Waptus Lake but missed the turnoff down the Spade Lake Trail as well as the intersection with the Waptus Lake Trail and so walked almost to the end of Waptus Lake before we turned around. The Waptus Lake Trail is set back far enough from the lake in places that you can’t see the water. The trail came and went under large clusters of deadfall so we got to wander around some, this time on logs and dirt instead of snow.
Eventually, we found a spot with a peek-a-boo view of the lake and a small entrance to it. We ate a first lunch. The temperature difference between the shade and the sun was surprising and we wound up putting fleeces on. The Ice Queen only needed hers after an expletive laden, short swim. Apparently there are limits of cold tolerance. Wim Hoff was discussed.
A quick jaunt brought us back around Waptus Lake, across the Waptus River, to that perfect lunch spot from the prior day, now occupied with a tent. We stopped and snacked. This time Ross balanced on a log on his back instead of his feet.
The trail from here out was dry and fast. A few of the rock hops turned out not to be safe in this direction so everyone got their feet wet. It was incredible how Ella and I had accumulated a number of small lacerations on our legs while Ross’s seemed almost untouched, even when he stumbled on a root and kicked his shin right into a pointed branch. I’ve contrasted Ella and Ross’s hiking motions before and this time I noticed Ella’s knees knocked and were starting to chafe. Ross’s legs were perfectly straight. I wonder if I move more like Ella given our shared magnetism for minor abrasion.
There was a fork in the trail which I didn’t remember and without looking at the map, would have chosen the way with a little more climbing. Fortunately, Ella wasn’t too lazy to pull out her GPS app and we dropped to an old forest road which carried us back to the road to the parking lot. A few minutes later and Ella acted out a end-of-hike tantrum. It’s a fun tradition for conveying how wonderful a medium hiking is for painting friendships. Another good tradition is Ross bringing out camp chairs, beer, and chocolate. Such a pity that you have to wait an hour after consuming an alcoholic beverage to drive safely. The light began to soften as we closed out another fun day in the great outdoors.
All Pics (includes Ella’s, not chronological)
May 1, 2020 was a Friday. Like most weekdays for the last few weeks it was supposed to start with some speed training before work. My running experience is ad-hoc and informal. I’ve never trained with the goal of getting faster. I guess I assumed that as your ran more, you just got faster. After lots of running last year that didn’t seem to be happening and I needed a goal in life so plans were made to try to run a fast 5k. I hated it. Running fast hurts in your lungs, your vision fuzzes, sometimes there’s the taste of blood in your mouth, your legs feel ponderous. Then, because you’re training, you do it again after an insufficient respite. I wanted out but had just been committed by a friend to training blocks of at least three weeks. If I were going to quit without finishing even one block, I needed a way of saving face.
Sitting on my stairs, suited up to go running, I pondered the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee that was starting today. Instead of logging my sprint work-outs as my daily mileage in the race, what if I ran easy, fun half-marathons through local parks on varied routes? Wouldn’t that be better than mechanically pounding a painful pace into the regimented routes I used for speed training? Yes, yes it would. A little over two hours later I’d was cruising home to finish up a meandering 14 miles.
Unfortunately, miles 13-16 tend to be where I get my second wind. I started doing mental math to see how long it would take to finish the 1000km virtual race. Still a long time. What if I ran a full marathon every day? Less than a month but precision isn’t my strong suit when doing long division in my head. Then I realized that a 50k every day would finish in 20 days. Easy math. Dangerous math. I showered, breakfasted, worked, and then went out for 18 miles to pick up my first daily 50k. I ran out of water and started counting down the miles one at a time. Then by quarters. Then by tenths. Easy math. Difficult math.
Hobbling around that evening, I explained the plan to my housemate. He looked at me limping from a right hip which felt like it was trying to slip out whenever I pulled that leg forward and expressed concern. Did I have to do this? I told him that tomorrow was the weekend so I could walk the miles. This whole virtual race across Tennessee thing feel like a good idea anymore.
May 2 started like a typical Saturday hike. I filled a daypack with food, water, an insulating top, and rain layers. The weather predicted light rain. Within 15 minutes of walking out the front door, that rain started. I put on my the experimental rain garment I’d brought to test on this walk. Think of it as either a poncho with arms and a bulge for your backpack or a very loose, oversized raincoat with space for your pack. The looseness was acceptable for walking but didn’t feel conducive to speed which was OK because I had all day to walk counter-clockwise around Lake Sammamish and then figure out how to pick up ten or so extra miles.
The light rain came and went making it a little hard for me to decide when to take off the raingear. However, constantly evaluating the state of the weather was a distraction which helped the miles pass. Endurance, an audiobook about the Shackleton expedition also helped.
These long weekend walks would present opportunities to get take-out from restaurants as though they were aid stations. I’d been using the draw of a burrito to pull me through the first 21-ish miles around the lake. As I drew near, I was worried that the rain would interfere with the touch screen on my phone so I wouldn’t be able to order online. Instead, I called to place an order. A voice recognition system for the national franchise answered but gave up when trying to understand my credit card number. It put me through to the restaurant itself which informed me they didn’t take orders over the phone. Apparently, you can just walk in to restaurants and order during the shutdown, it’s only the sitting and eating which is banned.
When I got home and assessed the day’s damage, it appeared that my hip issue was gone but I had difficulty flexing my left foot up due to a pain in the front of that ankle. The fridge was nearly empty so I drove to the store and hobbled around leaning on the cart, checking my shopping list thoroughly at every aisle and section to make sure I wouldn’t have to make more than one lap around the store. I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep walking tomorrow.
May 3, being a Sunday, put me in the mood to approach the day’s miles like a Sunday stroll. I walked around the north of Lake Washington via the Sammamish River Trail, Burke Gilman Trail, and 520. The weather lacked rain but the experience was nondescript. I finished Edurance and started Grant, a biography of Ulysses S Grant and let my mind hike the highways of history while my feet padded along the paths of the present.
The left-ankle issue wasn’t a problem by the end of the day, despite having been an issue in the morning. Instead, the muscle in my right shin ached at the end of the day. Fortunately I didn’t notice it during the actual walking. Blisters had now formed on inside of my right big near the toenail and on the front of the ball of the foot between the big and long toes. I rarely have to deal with blisters and so hoped these would go away overnight after being drained. It was not to be.
The only other person I know who was doing the GVRAT sent me an encouraging text after I’d finished for the day and was stuffing my face while doing digital chores so I could get to bed in time to fully rest while still getting up early enough to run before work. Given that I’d heard about the run through two channels, I’d expected to know more participants. Despite the contact being brief, it was good for my spirits. Motivation is a funny thing.
May 4 was a Monday which meant I had to work, which meant that I had to run instead of walk. 16 miles before work. 16 miles after work. Getting started required small shuffling steps to loosen the joints to the point where I could use a running form. The all-encompassing nature of this event was becoming clear. I felt pressure to to average at least 10min/mile so I could finish by 9:30am so I could shower and eat before work at 10am. After work, I needed 10min/mile so I could finish in time to shower, eat, and dispatch with correspondence and do minimal chores. Staying up late would just mean stealing time from the next day’s run.
Other than blisters, which had grown despite having been drained, I felt hopeful at the end of the day. Despite sore feet, stiff joints, and tired muscles, nothing was structurally wrong with my body. It was a sign that my body might be learning to manage the strain instead of breaking under it. I had expected that, like a through-hike, injury was most likely to strike early before the body could adapt to the rigors of high daily mileage. I felt hopeful about the rest of the event. Plus, I was 20% of the way through my plan.
May 5, a Tuesday, brought challenges which were more psychological than physical. Having survived the opening days without injury, I now had to face the monotony and slow degeneration which would take place with so much of the race still ahead. My pace was starting to ebb as a knocked off four mile laps around the neighborood, four in the morning and four in the evening.
I used the least mentally engaging course available to increase the likelihood of slipping into flow or getting lost in my audiobook and having the time pass without the weight of the future seconds, minutes, hours, and days crushing my mindset. The first mile would feel good. The second would get me to 1/8th. The third to 3/16ths which still felt positive, like an ant plodding persistently past lines on a ruler. I’d continue this way, ticking off progress within the current lap then trying to only look at the total lap count when I passed my condo association again. I ran clockwise in the morning since the shorter east-west slopes were run downhill which helped wake me up and in the morning I’d have more energy for the long, shallow uphills on the north-south oriented edges of the route. Running counter-clockwise in the evening provided some variation but also meant I got to spend more time and distance in a downhill stride which felt like a reward where I could build up motivation for the shorter climbs to recover the elevation. By any accounting in absolute terms, there was little elevation change – about 250ft per lap – but when your heart isn’t in it, you notice the little things. At this point, I was still finishing each run with a second wind which brought me in at a faster clip over the last mile or two for a roundly positive cascade of post-run emotions.
I’d now finished 25% and was feeling good. Just three more times what I’d already done. Seemed possible.
May 6, Wednesday, was a pivotal day in the run. Despite significant IT issues on the race website, I was checking my place daily, usually by whatever means was simplest and most reliably. The map which was supposed to show our position on the course had placed us in a straight horizontal line across North Africa and North America at different times. After the spreadsheet behind it all available had to be presented as a static webpage due to overload, I used that until the it stopped being updated in favor of a list with bare statistics for each runner. At this point, it was being updated every several hours and so runners who recorded mileage early in the day moved up sooner. I seemed to be recording my mileage late in the day and so would try to guess my actual position by seeing where I’d fall after my mileage for the day was included. Much to my surprise, I was usually finding my name on the first page of results and after compensating for whose mileage had and hadn’t been recorded, I was usually just short of 10th.
Like any race, I’d expected people to start at very different paces than the ones which they would eventually settle into. Having found myself settling so close to the front and with enough of the race still ahead that a small change of pace could make a big difference in time and position, I set a new goal: 36 miles per day. According to the mental math I did while running repeated rectangles ’round the neighborhood, doing a extra lap in the evening on weekdays would let me finish a day early. If I could pull big weekend mileage by walking for as long as possible, then I might even be able to finish on Sunday, May 17th in time to settle back into work the next day without the additional stress of five or more hours of running per day.
That extra lap that evening was difficult. It took longer to get to half way, throwing off the mental game I’d built to keep the weight of the future from crushing me.
May 7, Thursday, was difficult. In the evening run’s description on Strava, I wrote, “Pro Tip: Ground beef & kale based curry is not a good pre-run meal. I’m not quite sure how I didn’t wind up walking but by the end it was about that slow.” Aside from poor choices in pre-run meals, I’ve been running out of water. It turns out two 500ml soft bottles aren’t enough for 16 and 20 mile runs so I hit on an ingenious solution: use my home as an aid station since I pass there every 4 miles. That might also reduce the frequency with which I had to nip down a side trail to water a bush.
May 8, Friday, the cumulative exhaustion is setting in. A major source of motivation is the thought that I’ll get to walk for the next two days. I’ve been skipping out of work an hour early to get running so I can finish by nightfall. My per-mile pace has fallen to well over 10min/mile.
May 9, Saturday, is the start of the second weekend. A big mile day is key to bringing the finish date in towards May 17 so I load up my day pack and set out to walk around Lake Washington clockwise. Officially, public parks are supposed to be open but at one point, I wind up walking on some railroad tracks with an “Active Railroad” sign to bypass a locked gate through which I see people strolling. A about half way around the lake, I hit gold – a public restroom that’s open – so I don’t have to use my blue bag in public. It’s near a beach full of sunbathers. I don’t spend much time on beaches and so it’s not really obvious to me whether people are acting any different due to the social distancing rules. Lockdown is strange.
Grant is still the audiobook I’m listening to; it’s 48 hours long. I break up the day with a phone call to a friend. This is my first voice conversation with someone besides my housemate since starting the GVRAT. I’ve scheduled a phone first-date for Sunday and need to see if I can walk and talk. The answer is well enough for a friendly catch up, not well enough for a date.
Late in the day, the walking is getting hard despite being on flat asphalt paths. Through-hikers know that road walking is hard on your body. The goal for the day is 50 miles and I realize about 36 miles in that the route I’ve chose is at least several miles longer. Out comes the map app and I wind up using turn-by-turn directions to get me the last 8-ish miles home via backroads instead of following the Sammamish River trail. Night is falling while I’m still an hour away and my housemate texts to ask if I’m OK. I reply with an ETA and he says he’ll call off the choppers.
I’m not in good shape when I get home. I’d been out of water for the last 6-8 miles, probably because I’d put delicious fake orange juice powder in my primary reservoir and so drank it too fast. The blisters, for which these long walks are worse than running, are not longer possible to drain. Some are three deep. I cut them off with scissors, clean the newly exposed skin, and let them dry. I’ll pack them with cotton and tape over them for tomorrow’s walk. I fall asleep on my back, despite being a side sleeper, as I have for the last several nights, because the muscles on the side of my hips (the hip flexors?) hurt so much that they keep me awake if I sleep on them.
May 10, is another “Sunday stroll”. It’d be far too hard on my body to try for another big day so I set off for a counter-clockwise tour of Lake Sammamish hoping to get ice cream at a small, independent convenience store in the first few miles and a burrito for a late lunch about 22 miles before having my phone date in a park and finishing off the day with an out-and-back up the Sammamish River Trail for 36 miles. The convenience store is closed but I get the burrito, stuff it into my face, and flop down under the shade of a tree at 3pm for the phone call, glad that my date won’t be able to see my disheveled appearance and beard still wet with burrito juice. The connection is poor. Ironically, we’d both tried to take the call from parks. We reschedule for 4pm and I hoof it home. Two hours later, I sign off with, “I’ve got another 12 miles to walk before sundown”, though I’d forgotten to account for the walk home and fortunately only have 9.5 which I make by sundown. We’ll trade a few text messages over the next few days before going silent but I get several excellent audiobook recommendations since Grant is finally done.
May 11, the final Monday, is a major psychological milestone. From here out, each day of the week will be the last time I have to run or walk on that day of the week. Checking things off like that is a huge psychological boost. Additionally, my speed is back up. I’m running out of athletic tape for my blisters and have switched to gear repair tape since I don’t have time to get to as store.
May 12, the final Tuesday, is hard psychologically. It feels too early to be having trouble keeping it together. Scabs have been forming where I’ve cut off some of the blisters and each time I go running, the first mile is spent breaking them in and softening them up so I can run properly without feeling like there’s a pebble under the front of the ball of my foot.
May 13, the final Wednesday, is saved largely through the realization that I can walk the Friday evening miles and so after finishing, I’ll only have to go running three more times.
Since I’ve been running the same route morning and evening for two weeks now, I’ve begun to recognize faces and trade waves with the regulars. When this started, runners rarely passed me. Now the only runner who doesn’t is an older asian guy with a big smile who wears a visor and if it’s cold in the morning, socks on his hands. I also enjoy encountering another older asian guy who walks for exercise, sometimes with his hands raised as though in a sign of victory while listening to what sounds like classical music. Such characters.
May 14, the final Thursday, is held together on the grounds that it’s my last full day of running. My pace has fallen off but doesn’t I manage to keep it under 11min/mile. I decide I don’t care about efficiency anymore and take a long tour through a nearby park, out to the 520 trail, and back through Microsoft HQ, instead of my standard neighborhood loop. It’s slower since it rolls a little and requires thought now and again but the change is good.
With the closing weekend coming up, I’ve been studying the daily position and mileage of the runners around me. The updates now come out after everyone has posted their daily mileage and so show me somewhere from 12th to 9th. Everything had been pretty stable but Claudia from Great Britain put a 100 mile day and jumped ahead and so now there’s someone younger than me ahead of me, a first. It’s a guessing game as to whether she’s going to have a slow day which will bring her average back in line as has happened with anyone else who posted a 100 or if she’s going for a big finish. Going through the previous daily mileages for all of the runners around me, it’s clear that 3 to 5 runners could finish might finish on Saturday. My guess is that a Saturday finish will make it very likely that I finish top 10. A Sunday finish strikes me as leaving a top-10 finish up to a coin flip. Whatever strategy I pick, I’ll have to start executing it on Friday despite only having data from Thursday morning, almost a day behind.
May 15, the final Friday. I check the positions list first thing in the morning and get an error page indicating type of error on the web server which I haven’t seen playing around with simple websites in high school. How did Claudia follow-up her 100? Is anyone else showing signs of pushing for a finish? After grinding out the morning’s run on a new set of shoes which cushion everything wonderfully, I’m in a a can-do mindset. The plan is to attempt to close the last 100 miles by walking, starting after work, in four 25 mile laps trying to keep above a 3mph pace which should let me finish before midnight on Saturday. This seems the most manageable way to finish on Saturday, and maybe even get that 6th place which is the best anyone in my pack might take.
I do the first lap as a trip around Lake Sammamish from one ice cream franchise north of the lake to the same one, south of the lake so I can try all their specialty milkshakes. This goes off very well except that my right pinky toe aches terribly as though it no longer fits in the shoe. I can tell that there’s space for it, but only after I’d applied sufficient moleskin to a newly formed blister on the inside of my right heel which was leading to a compensating behavior that had jammed the pinky toe into the side of the shoe. The server error on the position list website hasn’t been resolved when I check around 11pm and so I head out for another lap, deciding to err on the side of going-for-it instead of hoping that everyone keeps pace through the finish.
May 16, the final Saturday, starts by ending in disaster. Attempting to cure my pinky toe, I’d switched back to a pair of running flats which were now too hard on my joints. My stride adapted a little but was about 18min/mile, much slower than the 15-16 I’d hoped to keep this early in the effort. I kept it up for about two miles but the ache in my right small toe hadn’t been resolved and at some point my face started convulsing like it was trying to cry without tears. I had the shoes which had initially pulverized the right pinky toe in my pack and put them on. At least my stride felt better even if the toe still hurt.
After two hours, my headlight switched off suddenly and wouldn’t come back on. While the path was clear, this was disconcerting and didn’t pair well with the ache which was now washing up from my right small toe up to my torso. In my haste to set out, I hadn’t packed an insulating layer and so the slight cold was seeping in and magnifying the ache. Also unexpected were the effects of sleep deprivation. By 2am I was weaving back and forth across the path in the dark instead of holding a straight line. My vision seemed clear, not doubled as usually happens to me when sleep deprivation attacks, but lights in the night didn’t seem to sit still. I considered finishing this lap extremely unlikely but didn’t want to give up just because things were getting hard. In ultra running (nevermind I was walking), things always get hard. This was, however, more painful than anything I’d experienced and so I decided then if my pace fell to slower than 3mph, I would let myself hail a ride home. But my pace didn’t fall and so as I approached the south end of Lake Sammamish I decided I’d pushed through long enough at 18-19min/mile to satisfy my personal need to keep the stiff upper lip. Since I wasn’t going to manage this for another 21 hours, I should taxi home so I didn’t damage myself further. After getting some sleep, I could pick up enough miles to position myself for a finish tomorrow.
Around 3:30am, I hailed a ride after having my credit card declined and having to use my backup. I made a Covid-mask out of a bandana but the driver wasn’t wearing a mask and didn’t seem concerned. At home, I hobbled up the stairs and lay down to die before deciding that I really did need to clean up. While showering, the pinky toe seemed structurally sound but was tender. The toenail was black and there was a blister in front of it. The decision to call off the night lap was probably good as the sides of my butt were sore in a way I didn’t know was possible. Things really had been falling apart.
At 8am I was woken up by a call from the credit card fraud hotline. Around noon, I actually got out of bed, packed a bag, and slowly strolled around Lake Sammamish picking up two milkshakes, a burrito, and conversing with a co-worker who I happened to encounter. All of this while casually wearing the same shoes as the night before but without the pain.
May 17, Sunday, I set out for a walking tour of the I-90 bridge, Seattle waterfront as far as Discovery Park, then returned over 520. A burger franchise’s drive-through didn’t acknowledge my presence when trying to walk through for breakfast so I bought a pan of cornbread and a soda from a grocery store. Diet of champions. The day was beautiful in the best of Pacific Northwest fashion. I almost took a picture realizing that I’d probably mention it this post but decided not to break my tradition of not taking pictures during races. I race to run, or, in this case, saunter. No time for fun.
I didn’t even have to saunter all the way home. My mileage count had ticked more than a mile past the finish when I reached an independent drive-in restaurant and decided to end in time for one last celebratory milkshake and burger. Not knowing that all finishers on a given day were considered as tying, I called my parents to ask them to post my mileage immediately since the recording form wasn’t functional in the mobile browser on my phone. My housemate even picked me up so I wouldn’t have to walk home. Such and easy last day may have been the literal and moral equivalent of walking it in, but it was a glorious walk.
May 18, the day after I’d logged my 1000th kilometer of the 1000km Great Virtual Race across Tennessee, Dad sent me an e-mail with a copy of the finisher page showing my name tied for a 7th place finish on May 17th.
Later, I got an e-mail from Laz, the race director congratulating me on the finish, and offering a registration link to virtually run back across Tennessee. I decided not to take him up on the offer.
I’d had a great Monday getting to focus on work without counting down the hours until I had to run again.
May 20, after I’d been convalescing in the glow of a multiple-day release of tension and endorphins, I get a follower request on Strava from a stranger. I accept and a few hours later, they let me know about a Facebook post from Laz asking if anyone knew why I’d stopped so close to the finish. Apparently this was a 1021.68 km race. Panic set in and few searches revealed this:
Reading through the comments, it was apparent that I wasn’t the only one who’d thought that this was a 1000km race. I replied privately to Laz’s congratulatory finisher e-mail to let him know I was OK. Having emotionally finished the race started moving on, I let him know I wasn’t intending to finish but that I liked the suggestion of maybe finishing on the final day. Mom has started so maybe I’ll finish with her. Laz wrote back joking that I’d be lucky to avoid the nickname, “where’s Isaac?” and that to mess with people, I should log a few miles every once in a while.
I’ve never seen myself be the subject of public speculation so it was interesting seeing all the comments wondering about me. I left a comment thanking the stranger who’d reached out to let me know about the thread and informing everyone I was doing well.
There were also several reply chains from someone who’d also thought it was a 1000km race (not 1021.68km) because the actual distance was hard to find. These tended to receive short replies with screen shots of the FAQ showing the offical distance clearly listed and sometimes statements about the importance of reading the rules. However, the WayBack machine shows that course description page (current link, WayBack link) and the FAQ (current link, WayBack link) were cached on May 8th 2020, there was no mention of the 1021.68km distance. The FAQ even states, “In order to earn your finisher’s medal, you’ll have to finish 1000k before September 1, 2020”. The mistake is completely understandable. I made it. Based on his congratulatory e-mail, Laz made it. May people on the Facebook thread made it. In fact, while the course description and FAQ have now been updated, as of May 25, 2020, the race info page (current link, Wayback link) still only lists 1000km. Ultimately, it was my mistake to run only 1000km as everyone who finished before me seems to have figured out that the distance was 1026km, though I’m not sure how they did it.
While the late discovery that I hadn’t actually finished was a bitter coda, I kind of enjoy the idea that everyone approaching the end will march past my slot on the position list and wonder, “where’s Isaac?” A runner who been in the 50km/day pack friended me on on Facebook yesterday to ask if I was OK, and joked that he was only planning on starting back across Tennessee once I’d finished. I let him know he might be waiting a while. We commiserated about the effort and wished each other the best.
I’ve always wanted to know what it would be like to do a marathon a day for an extended period of time. I’m thankful to Laz, Durb, and their team for putting on an event that pushed me to finally do it.
[Update March 17, 2020: Per the ATC’s guidance, my summer plans are on hold]
Memories from February 29, 2020. This post is a little on the introspective side but realizing that the grieving process had been useful for managing conflicting ambitions seems like an insight worth sharing.
Today I decided to attempt the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Continental Divide Trails (CDT) this summer. The packing party invites I sent out this week said I was doing the AT and CDT. In texts with friends and calls with family, I’ve been saying the same. The problem is that until today, none of this sat well with me.
I’d wanted more. After hiking the PCT in 2016, I caught the long distance hiking bug and found myself repeatedly interested in a Calendar Year Triple Crown (hike the PCT, AT, and CDT in a single year). This was a low grade, long festering dream. Higher priority were financial goals. Then were relational goals. Finally, there were career goals. All of those came before hiking goals. The hike was delayed one year and then another. I have a spreadsheet with 2018 in the title because it represented a plan to meet a financial goal that year. I didn’t re-title it when events transpired which delayed the projection until 2019. More events transpired (not the recent stock market drop). Now the projection is 2020/2021. The relational goals have seen less traction, perhaps not surprisingly as people are less predictable than paychecks. The one place things are going well is my career; I’m on the cusp of a long desired opportunity which will disappear if I go hiking. After years of delays which have failed to resolve a number of my much desired goals, walking away for anything less than the full CYTC seemed like a let down.
The problem, of course, is that the CYTC is a brutal undertaking. I found myself building plan after schedule after resupply strategy, trying to find a way to escape daily mileage targets which seemed like they would sap the joy from the experience. I ran a number of ultra marathons last year and so no one part of the plan seemed unmanageable. The problem is that after running an ultra, you rest. After hiking an ultra as part of the CYTC, you wake up and do it again the next day. Town stops are aid stations – necessary but minimized. It becomes an ultra marathon of ultra marathons.
Into this unresolved problem stepped Garret “Pathfinder” Guinn (his blog). At dinner after a day hike with him and another friend late last year, I discovered he had attempted the CYTC in 2018. While he finished a couple weeks into 2019, the planning and experience he conveyed confirmed the grinding nature of my expectations. Garrett is an an engineer by trade and coach by passion. He sent me his planning materials and talked about physical and mental aspects of the undertaking. While Garrett’s experiences they made the undertaking seem more relatable, the physical and emotional cost seemed all the more inescapable.
Cause of my my discontent was something I’d experienced before: priorities which in some cases supported each other and in other cases conflicted. On the Hayduke in 2018, I started with unstated goals both of hiking the entire route and enjoying myself. These came into conflict when I had to bail out of a section and didn’t have enough leave from work to restart it. The process of identifying, articulating, and releasing myself from the first goal so that I could embrace the second seems like it should have been simple: “you’ve been saving vacation days for two years, why would you spend hard won days of freedom on anything you don’t enjoy?”. In practice, I went through the stages of grief, almost quitting the Hayduke, before being able to embrace the adventure only from the viewpoint that I should enjoy it.
By this time, I’d been through the first three phases of grief about the CYTC: denial that it was going to be as demanding it was, anger that I couldn’t seem to make it work in a reasonable manner (many planning sessions kept me up until midnight), bargaining with the trail by rearranging my plans almost a dozen ways to see if it would fit. The bargaining ended with a 42 mile walk during sick day I took from work which resulted in 8 blisters. Depression, the next phase of grief, now kicked in as I tentatively tried out plans which didn’t involve all three trails. I wasn’t depressed in the clinical sense, though a lack of vitamin D due the the winter here in the Pacific Northwest didn’t help (I started supplements last week and they’re my new favorite recreational drug). Instead, I found that my new plans didn’t feel like they were worthy of quitting my my wonderful job and spending 8 or more months of life to undertake.
Today, acceptance came in a strange way. Garrett was in the area again having quit work and about set of on a long adventure of his own design. His enthusiasm for hiking and adventure was infectious. We hiked 10 miles, drove to lunch, ate lunch, sat in the restaurant talking, walked over to REI, stood around REI talking (frequently interrupted by attentive associates), then walked about three miles before calling it quits. We chewed over some of my worries and reasons for downgrading from the CYTC to AT+CDT, and he added some color to support both sides of the discussion. At the end of our time together, the CYTC just seemed possible and I had every intention of going home and revisiting my original plans with his new stories in mind. First though, I took a nap.
Waking up from that nap, I found I had no desire to hike the CYTC. I was now happy with the narrative I’d built around the AT+CDT hike. They’ll be the “wedding hikes” as I’ll be leaving form one wedding to start the AT and need to finish the CDT in time to attend another. Bonus: the couple in the first wedding my at my pre-PCT going-away party. If I want to keep hiking after that, I can hike a trail which is in season instead of pushing into winter conditions. I felt free again.
My CYTC dreams had been anchored by a quote from Jenifer Pharr-Davis about what became her second record setting hike of the Appalachian Trail, “I didn’t want to look back and I didn’t want to wonder.” Giving up on the CYTC before starting seems at odds with this. But recently, I’d written down something Dylan Bowman said during a talk I attended at UW, “Do what you do because you love it, not because you’re afraid of the person you’d be without it”. I’m a naturally driven person. I don’t want to wonder if I could have done a CYTC this year. That’s why I had to grieve forsaking it. More important to me is the pleasure I take in these long distance hikes: the wonder and awe; the camaraderie; the capturing and sharing of memories; the physical accomplishment of big miles, long days, rough travel and the delicious rest that comes thereafter. And so with my priorities straight, I can embrace my plans for the summer. If it turns out I really care about the CYTC, there’s always next year.